At my parent’s house there was a large red velvet anniversary card sitting on the breakfront in the dining room that stated: To My Wonderful Husband. An even bigger card stood at attention right next to it that said: To My Darling Wife.
“She put that out,” my father said, seeing me studying the cards.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“That’s from last year,” he said to me, glancing over at her.
My mother was pretending to read the newspaper while seated on the living room sofa, which was located about seven feet from where my father and I were sitting at the dining room table. She had a habit of holding the newspaper open completely to read for a while and then cracking it violently like a whip before she turned the page. She cracked it now.
“You gave her that last year and you gave it to her again?” I asked.
“No, I gave it to her last year and she saved it and put out there herself this year so people would think I gave her a card this year,” he said, whispering now.
“What people?” I still didn’t get it. I looked over at her.
“2 years ago,” my mother said loudly from behind the newspaper. “I put that out last year too.”
“Oh, okay,” my father said mildly, lighting a cigarette, “if you say so.”
He turned the television up. He thought it was funny.
She cracked the newspaper again, turned the page decisively and slapped it flat.
My mother had always been a dedicated sender of greeting cards. She used many of the ones that came free in the mail, sent by some major disease charity, religious organization (Little Sisters of the Poor) or Indian reservations looking for donations. They often featured watercolors of fluffy kittens and puppies or an idyllic view like a cottage by the sea. As a child I had studied the cards when they arrived and was startled to see that some had artwork made by terribly handicapped people who painted with the brush clasped between their teeth or toes.
A dozen cards a month went out for birthdays, baptisms, graduations, communions, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, illness, death and holidays. She had beautiful handwriting with large flourishing loops that she used to write All Our Prayers, Our Thoughts Are With You, Hope To See You Soon, or Congratulations! inside each card. This was not a one-way street either. All the cards they received from others were displayed in the dining room, cleared away only after the next batch came in for another event. With my brothers and I grown and living elsewhere, of course, there weren’t as many as there used to be.
“How’s Mary?” my father asked, inquiring about a friend I had graduated from art school with last year.
“She’s fine,” I said. “She has an apartment in Manhattan now.”
“Manhattan!” my father said with dismay. “She must have rocks in her head.”
According to my father anyone who lived in Manhattan had rocks in their head.
“I’m going to go home now,” I said, and gave them each a kiss. Climbing up the creaky stairs to use the bathroom before I left, I marveled at how small this house seemed now, as if it just wasn’t big enough to contain anything having to do with me.
Monday morning I was back at my position as a secretary/receptionist with Martin Realty; a company in Jersey City that managed apartment buildings. I had been supporting myself this way for about a year and was trying to remain a painter after graduating from art school not long before. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was mine. I lived in a Martin Realty apartment not far from the office that had been spray-painted so many times that the walls, woodwork and light fixtures appeared to be coated with a thick layer of white volcanic ash.
Martin Realty did not have many employees. There were only four of us besides Robert Martin, the company president. For repairs to the apartments we employed another company run by a guy named Sam Brewer. He and his surly secretary, Rita, were located elsewhere and, although I had never met them, I spoke to them by phone constantly, passing on requests from tenants. Sam and Rita had wisely arranged that all calls from tenants went to our office. Neither of them ever displayed the slightest sense of urgency about the complaints. In fact, they found my concern for the tenants hilarious.
Max Goldberg, a little man in his late seventies, stopped by my desk with a big smile as usual. He rolled a fat cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.
“Good morning Isabel,” he said, clasping his hands behind his back and giving me a little bow with a good view of the top of his bald head. Max was extremely good natured and full of advice for me, although he did very little work himself. I could not imagine what his job description was.
“Hi Max,” I said, pulling my donut out of its bag.
Mr. Martin had been trying to get Max to retire, and not along ago had gone as far as having the entire office rearranged one weekend minus Max’s desk. Max looked around the following Monday morning and refused to give anyone a sign that he knew. Now he just roamed.
The phone rang and my first call was about a stopped-up toilet.
“They put things in toilets. Things they don’t want you to know about,” Max was saying at my side, as I spoke with the tenant.
“Still here Max?” Mr. Martin strode in with his briefcase and gave me a smile. I knew, positively, that although I had been his employee for almost a year, he still did not know my name. He went into his office and slammed the door. Another line rang and after I put the first one on hold, picked it up to hear Martin’s wife say “Mr. Martin, please” in her Brooklyn squawk. She didn’t know my name either. I buzzed Martin on the intercom and went back to finish the toilet call.
“I have to find the key to 4F at the Wellesley Avenue property, Max,” I said after I hung up with the snarling tenant. Starting to feel panicky already, I ran over to the huge bin of jumbled keys in the adjoining room hoping he would follow me and make himself useful. Max had been working here for around thirty years and had managed, with his cohort Marcella Lamprey, to fail to achieve any kind of system for keeping the keys to hundreds of apartments. Marcella was even older than Max and managed to do even less. Attired in one of her signature droopy dresses with elaborate collapsed frills at the neckline and hem, she drifted by my desk now. In her own office, adjacent to the reception area where I sat, she spent most of her time rearranging her desk, playing the lottery and talking to her sister-in-law on the phone. Curiously, her hair, streaked with gray and worn long for a woman of her age, was styled in a way that I believe is called “marcelled”.
“One lady said she had no idea why the toilet was stopped up,” Max continued, following me towards the key bin. “Sam told me there was a package of pork chops in there. She told Sam she had to throw ’em down there because she forgot to cook ’em before the expiration date and if she threw ’em in the garbage her husband would know.”
I couldn’t find the key and went back to my desk, picked up a blank lease and started to work on it. There were 10 leases that needed doing. The phone rang.
“Honey, do you have any staples?” Marcella’s voice was suddenly close by. Her voice was high pitched, nasal and gravelly, all at the same time, as if she were imitating someone. I threw her a pack of staples, picked up the phone and had a conversation about one of our weekend apartment ads. Several college kids came in with newspapers in their hands and I waved them over to some abused dinette chairs in the corner. When I was done on the phone I handed them each an application to fill out.
“You’ll need a co-signer,” I told them. The phone rang.
Then I remembered that the new listings needed to be typed up and copied so that walk-ins like these could see them. I started to do that. The phone continued to ring. Max puffed away at his cigar while Marcella studied the staple box. I put two people on hold, picked up another call and became embroiled in an argument with Sam Brewer about a broken window that he insisted was not broken and why was I wasting his time, blah, blah, blah. During this a worried-looking young woman came in with a baby and a toddler. In an unusual move, Max took charge and asked if he could help her.
Mr. Martin came out of his office with his briefcase and plowed through the small crowd, seated and standing, that consisted of Marcella dithering over the staple box, Max telling the young mother that the apartment she was enquiring about was taken (it wasn’t, but she was black and Max knew the landlord would not rent to her), the college kids filling out applications and a short middle-eastern looking man who had walked in a few minutes ago and kept throwing me furtive looks while digging his fists into his pockets pacing around the reception area and clearing his throat. I began to suspect this was the guy whose bathroom ceiling had caved in 3 weeks ago because the throat clearing sounded the same. This fellow had displayed the usual sequence of attitudes on the phone to me over the last few weeks during our many conversations: polite, slightly annoyed, pissed, irate, conciliatory, pleading, irate again. Now he was desperate.
“I’ll be out,” Mr. Martin said gaily as he headed for the exit.
At this point Jerry Rodriquez, the only other employee of Martin Realty besides myself that actually did anything (he showed the apartments), was coming through the office door.
“Mr. Martin,” Jerry put up his hand as if he could stop his boss from leaving, “I got a few things we need to talk about.”
“Later Jerry,” said Martin, and was gone.
Jerry and I exchanged a look. Jerry was older than I, married with two small kids. I was pretty sure he was counting on Martin Realty to provide him with a secure career.
A look of intense concern was on my face as I turned to speak with the man with the fallen ceiling. He asked me: Why? Why does it take so long for the man to come and fix my ceiling? We parted the best of friends, but I was afraid if I called Sam Brewer one more time with this request he wouldn’t go at all. As the young mother filled out an application for another apartment her children wailed, the college students discussed the possibility of a third roommate and the office filled up with other hopeful people, eager to fall into the vortex of Martin Realty.
In the afternoon I took countless calls from unhappy tenants and frustrated apartment seekers. Jerry was in and out showing apartments, frantically looking for keys whenever he returned to the office, Max fell asleep in Jerry’s chair and Marcella picked up the phone exactly twice to repeat the phrase “Well, I don’t know” numerous times. She transferred both calls to me. Mr. Martin never returned. Before I left at 5:00 I called Rita to leave another request for repair to the bathroom ceiling.
“Tell me something new, princess,” she said, and hung up.
As I was leaving Jerry was coming in again. He knew by the look on my face that it was only a matter of time.
“Please don’t quit Isabel!” he whispered, as I pushed past him.
Filled with despair I walked home that evening and wondered how long it would be before I cracked. My upbringing had me taught me to be part of the team, treat people fairly, tell the truth and do what I was told. After that I went to art school and learned how to be an artist. So far, none of it had been very useful.
That night in my apartment I started a painting of a crucifixion scene on a sparkling white four by six foot canvas. There were 6 newly stretched and primed canvases available in my living room. I lugged one of them onto my easel and sketched in Mr. Martin’s figure on a cross in the center of the canvas, leaving plenty of room for others on either side of him. He will eventually be attired, I intoned under my breath, as if narrating a biographical film on my life, in his usual gray suit, white shirt and red striped tie. I sketched in the expression on his face.
He looked alert, but not surprised.
My plan for this painting evolved into this: two other crucified persons, Marcella and Max, flanked Mr. Martin on his right, seemingly asleep on their crosses, or perhaps dead. On his left hung Sam Brewer and Rita (as I imagined they looked), nailed to their own crosses, howling in agony. A couple of happy-go-lucky Roman soldiers played dice in the dirt. One would be Jerry and the other would be me! This idea cheered me up considerably.
But then lying in bed that night I thought of it another way; a long line of crucified figures, all of them me, the different facial expressions starting from the left would be: polite, slightly annoyed, pissed, irate, conciliatory, pleading, irate again and, finally—desperate.
As happened sometimes, the couple in the apartment directly above mine started fighting as I was falling asleep at around 11:00 p.m. The guy seemed to like throwing things out the window to make his point. I had sensed large objects zooming downward past my bedroom window during previous fights and confirmed their existence the next day on the ground. Once it was a toaster oven and once a vacuum cleaner.
Their shouting continued now for a few long minutes, and then there was a huge scraping sound across my ceiling that seemed to be traveling toward my bedroom window. Trying to find something good to focus on, I was thankful they didn’t have any kids. Then I saw what looked like a refrigerator, partly illuminated by a nearby streetlight, go past my window. Although I had never heard the sound of a refrigerator hitting the ground from 4 stories up, this seemed like exactly that. I got up, went into my kitchen for a snack, turned on the fluorescent light and closed my eyes for a full ten seconds to give the roaches time to scuttle back into the teeming walls.
“Listen college girl,” Sam Brewer spat out over the phone first thing Tuesday morning, “I been in this business long before you came along and I do things a certain way. Nobody is gonna die of a collapsed bathroom ceiling. The leak from above has been fixed. He’s just gonna have to wait until I get there, so stop calling about this shit.”
“You’re not supposed to curse at me, Sam,” I said, unleashing all the power that Martin Realty had bestowed on me, “I won’t be able to do my job if you do.”
Sam snorted into the phone, “Ya hear that, Rita?” he said. I could hear him repeating what I had said and then they both started to laugh. I lost it then and slammed the receiver down.
“What’s wrong honey?” said Marcella, trying to be nice.
But I wasn’t having it. If I had a gun, I thought while I gazed at her, I’d start with you.
The phone rang and I picked it up.
“Martin Realty,” I said, breathing heavily.
“You hung up on him, Isabel, that’s very rude,” said Rita’s voice. She went on to tell me how upset Sam was with me.
“Rude? Are you kidding?” I shouted into the phone, “He curses at me! He doesn’t fix stuff for weeks! I’m the one who has to deal with these tenants! You hang up on me all the time!”
“What’d he say?” Rita asked, ignoring everything else I had said.
“He said shit Rita, he said to stop bothering him with this shit!”
“Oh my, dearie me, you never heard that word before, honey?”
“The word doesn’t matter, Rita. The point is that both of you are totally impossible to deal with!” I yelled.
“Your attitude needs improvement, sweetheart,” she said calmly, “You should never hang up on anyone. Didn’t they teach you that in college?”
“I take it that you and Sam didn’t go to college?” I couldn’t stop myself.
She didn’t say anything.
“Not that it matters to me, Rita,” I continued, ” but it seems to matter to you.”
I hung up again.
“Art School isn’t really college you know,” said Mary, starting to sound a little tipsy.
My friend Mary and I were sitting in my sparse living room some weeks later on a Saturday night. I was trying to get her to feel sorry for me and she wasn’t cooperating. I squeezed another lime into our gin and tonics and poured a lot more gin in as well.
“To Sam and Rita it is,” I said.
“Are they married to each other?” she asked.
“I’ve no idea.”
“Why do you have no idea?” she asked.
“I only talk to them on the phone, Mary, I’ve never met them. For all I know they’re midgets. Or lepers.”
“Who sent you a Valentine?” she asked.
“What?” I was getting drunk and confused.
“The Valentine, stupid.” She jerked her chin towards the card on my coffee table. There was a drawing of two chubby pink bears clutching a large red heart on the front of it. Inside it said: “You’ll Always Be Our Valentine!”
“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. “My mother.”
There was a silence during which I downed my gin and poured another.
“What’s with the painting?” she pointed at my grand crucifixions scene. All the figures were sketched in by now. “I mean you’re a landscape and still-life painter aren’t you? What’s this all about?”
“I’ve painted figures before,” I said. “These are the people I work with,” I continued drunkenly. “Look, there’s Sam and Rita.” I pointed at them on their crosses, realizing that I had just told her that I had never seen them.
She raised her eyebrows and flipped her hair back. Since she was a ceramic artist, I knew she had no high regard for content. I started to tell myself that this would explain her dislike of my painting. She didn’t pursue it.
“I read about this guy who paints with his feet,” she said, and looked at me expectantly.
“He’s paralyzed or something?”
“No, he just wants to see if he can do it. You know, see what happens,” she said, turning her eyes toward my painting.
We both stared at it. I thought I might pass out.
“That makes no sense, Mary,” I said, amazed at my ability to speak, “he’s just masturbating, fooling around, being an ‘artist’.” I made little quote marks in the air with my fingers and the room started to spin.
“You’d better quit that job Isabel,” she said slowly, not listening to me at all and leaning towards me on the ratty couch. “Because no one knows who the people in the painting are and therefore it, uh…makes no sense.”
I absolutely hated advice from Mary. She was a rich kid who had never had to earn money. She lived off her trust fund and made serene, delicately glazed bowls and vases that seemed to me, as she did, to be completely untroubled by reality. I got up with as much dignity as I could manage, made it over to the hall closet and dug out some old blankets and a pillow.
“You must have rocks in your head,” I declared as I threw this stuff at her, feeling clever in the way that one does only when intoxicated. After that all I remember is finding my bedroom and aiming myself towards the bed.
“I guess we’re having a sleepover,” I heard her say.
“She called him Sam!” Mary whispered at me as we sat opposite each other the next morning feeding our hangovers at a coffee shop down the street from my apartment. We had grits, fried eggs, and sausages on our plates.
“Who?” I said, barely lifting my head up from my breakfast.
“He just called her Rita!” Mary was doing one of those frozen-upper-body/jerking-head gestures in the direction of a couple seated a few tables away.
I swallowed and looked them over, listening to their voices.
“Um…yeah,” I said, staring now. “I think it’s them.”
Mary was pleased with herself and went back to her breakfast, her smooth hair swinging forward.
Between bites I studied them and Mary poked at the various things on her plate. Rita was a thin, carefully dressed black woman of about forty with almond shaped eyes and a huge bunch of glistening curls piled on top of her head. Sam was a muscular white guy of a similar age with a chiseled face and luxurious jet-black hair, worn a bit too long. His bomber jacket had the word Springsteen in fuzzy white script on the back. They certainly weren’t midgets or lepers. In fact, they exuded such confidence in their good looks that people at the other tables kept glancing at them.
“What is this?” Mary pointed at the pale pile of cereal on her plate. Usually she avoided betraying her lack of familiarity with lower class food.
“Grits,” I said, looking over at Sam again.
“They’re cool aren’t they?” Mary said as she watched me watching them.
I went back to my food.
“Quit the job, Isabel,” she continued in a low voice, “You’ll never beat those two.”
“Mmmm.” I was eating.
“They’ve obviously got a lot of class resentment,” she went on. “They see you as a privileged college kid.”
“Why should they? I do the same kind of work they do.”
“But you shouldn’t,” she said. “You need to figure out what to do next.”
We were quiet for a while and finished our food. Sam and Rita had paid their check and were moving out the door. Through the large windows of the coffee shop we watched them head towards the PATH train entrance.
“Let’s go into the city,” Mary said, in a final attempt to rouse me to some kind of activity. “We could see a movie; you could stay at my place tonight.” She paused. “I’ve got a guy I want you to meet.”
“I can’t do any of that,” I said, “I’m driving out to see my parents a little later.”
“It’s Valentine’s Day.”
“She makes a heart-shaped pink iced cake on Valentine’s Day.”
“My MOTHER!” I shouted at her.
“She bakes?” she said.
I didn’t answer as we moved towards the cash register to pay.
“Can I come?” she pressed on excitedly as we left the coffee shop. I suppose a mandatory visit necessitated by the effort behind a heart-shaped pink cake seemed exotic, almost kinky, to my friend Mary.
“No,” I said and starting making excuses, wanting to be alone for a while. We walked along the sidewalk while the sun shone hot and bright. I turned my head and let it shine full on my face because it felt so good in the winter. What more does anyone need? I thought, a wave of good cheer coming over me. Why was I so pissed off all the time?
Mary and I said the usual goodbye things and she went down the PATH train stairs. I walked rapidly back to my apartment with the firm intention of starting a self-portrait. I had a plan for an interesting composition. Plans were good; plans were necessary. Maybe I could figure out a way to support myself without having to return to Martin Realty as well. Right now, though, starting a picture of myself seemed like the thing to do. And then I would go eat Valentine cake.
But when I got to my building Jerry Rodriquez was coming out the front door. He said I was just the person he wanted to see.
“Sure, Jerry, what’s up?” I said nonchalantly, flipping over in my mind the various reasons why Jerry, the only conscientious co-worker at Martin Realty and an all around Good Guy, Father and Husband would want to talk his way into my apartment on a Sunday afternoon. We climbed up to the third floor and I got out my keys.
“I was upstairs just now,” he said, pointing upwards toward the apartment occupied by the appliance-throwing guy and his wife.
“Oh yeah, they moved out didn’t they?”
“Yeah, I took a look to see what repairs it needs. Funny though, there’s no refrigerator.”
“Uh huh,” I said, not willing to go there. We entered my apartment and the turpentine hit our nostrils.
I motioned for him to sit down on the sofa and sat down in another chair.
“Well,” he said, looking around at my dismal collection of furniture and smelly paintings, “it’s about Max.” He paused and I said nothing. “He’s going to be evicted.” Jerry continued. “He has no money and nowhere to go.”
I knew that Max lived in a Martin Realty apartment because I often overheard him calling Sam Brewer or Rita to request repairs or painting. “Sam always comes pronto,” Max winked at me one day, after such a call. “The guy owes me.”
“Martin isn’t paying him anymore,” Jerry went on, “hasn’t paid him for a year.”
“Max told you this?” I asked.
Jerry nodded. “I stopped over at his apartment last night. I’ve suspected for a while that Martin was pressuring him to leave. Not only the office, but the apartment too.”
“So Max owes rent?”
“Quite a bit. And the building is going up for sale soon. Martin has to get Max out of there.”
“Who owns the building?”
“A partnership I think, something Martin is part of,” he said.
“Didn’t he save any money, Jerry, I mean, how could he let this happen?” I said.
“He says he’s got a gambling problem. No family either, he says.” He paused. “He’s a happy guy, Isabel, very optimistic and relaxed. I guess he never thought about it.”
“His wife died a few years ago. No kids,” Jerry said. He was visibly tired now and rubbed his face slowly with both hands, leaning forward on the couch. Despite his demanding job and family responsibilities he had taken the time to tell me about this, hoping I could help. I saw, however, that although he wanted to help Max he did not want to risk his job with Martin Realty.
“Why does Sam owe Max?” I asked. “Max told me that once.”
Jerry looked blank. “I don’t know.” We were quiet for a minute.
“This place is big—2 bedrooms, huh? How much you pay here now?” Jerry said looking around.
“I can help,” I said, remembering something. “He has a sister in the Bronx. She called the office once and I’ve got her number.” Jerry popped off the couch with energy now.
“Okay, so, let’s call her tomorrow,” he said with vigor, looking at his watch. “I gotta go.”
“But why wouldn’t he tell you he has a sister in the Bronx?” I asked, as he moved towards the door. He waved off my question as he stared at the crucifixions painting leaning against the wall. I guess he hadn’t seen it before.
“Is that…?” he started to say, pointing at it. “Are those…?”
“Time to go, Jerry,” I practically pushed him with one hand while I struggled to get the door open from a bit too far away. I wonder which face he recognized, I thought, with some satisfaction.
“I remember now,” Jerry said, stopping in the doorway. “When I first started with them, I remember Sam told me that Max had given him some money for an emergency once. Rita was in the hospital for a while, real sick, I don’t know what. Anyway, Sam said that Max helped them with their bills and wouldn’t take any repayment.”
“Okay, whatever,” I said. “I’ll call the sister tomorrow.”
Looking relieved, he left and went down the stairs.
Walking over to my bedroom window I looked out and saw that the refrigerator was still there on the small lawn at the side of the building. Then I saw Jerry pass by and glance at it. He won’t make the connection, I realized. It just wouldn’t occur to him that someone would push such a thing out the window.
And so the call was made to Edith Tobin. In the office the next day I found her number on one of the carbon copy message pads where I kept a record of all calls. On the pad I had written the word “sister” after her name. I made sure that no one was listening: the reception area was empty, Marcella was scratching lottery cards and talking on the phone to her sister-in-law, Max was out to lunch and Martin was nowhere to be seen. I spoke to a sweet voiced woman who said “A minute please.” There was a loud static sound and then the older voice of Edith came on, loud and hollow sounding. I explained to her that I worked in Max’s office.
“He’s dead?” she said.
“No, no,” I said, “not that. He needs your help, though. I don’t think you know that he’s about to be evicted from his apartment here in Jersey City.”
“Ah hah. No, I don’t believe he mentioned that, even though he was here last week,” she said. She sounded completely unsurprised.
“And so…” I said, unsure of how to proceed.
“And so! ” she laughed. ” Exactly. You are kind to call me. There are very few people who would do that for a stranger. You must understand, however, that although I have asked him many times, Max would rather live on the sidewalk than come live here with me.”
She went on to tell to me that she had full time nursing help because rheumatoid arthritis had left her without the use of her hands. She was fortunate, she said, that her late husband had provided for her and she was well taken care of and allowed to remain in her own home. Nothing would make her happier, she said, than to have Max live with her during whatever time they had left, but he was her older brother, and somehow this prevented him from accepting her help.
“But you need his help as well,” I said, annoyed with myself for getting involved and failing.
“He doesn’t admit that we are old,” she said. “He would like to go on as he always has.” She continued, “He likes to play the horses.”
Not sure where to go with the conversation, I started to speak again, but she interrupted me.
“And what is your job at Martin Realty, dear?”
“I’m leaving soon,” I said. “I’m a painter, really.”
“I paint also,” she said cheerfully.
I thought about this for a few seconds. “How?” I asked.
“I hold the brush between my teeth,” she said.
3 of my phone lines began to ring at once.
“Isn’t there any other family?” I asked quickly.
“No,” she said, even quicker. ” Good luck dear.”
Max entered the office a little while later as I was typing up a lease. He was humming a cheery sounding tune. His cigar seemed bigger and juicier than ever before. These cigars weren’t even lit half the time. He just chewed them and chewed them and they got wetter and wetter. I was furious at this deceitful little man, his pants pulled up way too high and the blooming freckles on his hands. What right did he have to be so happy when he was about to be homeless and his sister was up there in the Bronx painting with her teeth?
I resolved to put this all out of my mind for the time being. The day passed and I continued to do a hell of a job for Martin Realty.
Walking home as usual after work I stopped to buy some groceries. Arriving home I found a birthday card from my mother in the mail. On the outside was a cartoon-like illustration of a skipping bunny-rabbit with huge feet. Puffy cloudlike letters drifted above his head spelling out the words Here’s Hoppin’ You Have—and then inside—A Hoppy Birthday! Wondering if she had acquired it free in the mail, I placed it on my coffee table and went into the kitchen to make dinner.
That night I stayed up late and started my self-portrait. Studying myself in a large mirror, I heard the narrator of the biographical film of my life again: Never one to stand idly by when others are in need, Isabel sketches in the face of a young woman determined to give Max Goldberg a home. The camera closes in on my masterful brushwork and then zooms back to capture the entirety of my expression on the canvas. I look alert but not surprised.
The next evening after work I drove to my parent’s house.
“What’s wrong?” my mother said suspiciously when she opened the back door.
“Nothing,” I said. I had just been there that weekend, it was a weeknight and I hadn’t called first. Who could blame her for thinking I was in trouble? We had dinner and chit chatted, the two of them seeming to hold their breath waiting for the ax to fall, something that came easily to their pessimistic natures. What had I come to tell them? What indeed? I was contemplating asking them if I could borrow a bed frame, mattress and box spring from one of the unused upstairs bedrooms. At one point after dinner I went upstairs and inspected the various available beds. There was all sorts of old stuff under each one; weights, a hair dyer, cheerleader pom poms.
Driving home I thought about the pom poms and it reminded me of something that happened when I was 7 years old and my eldest brother was 17, a quarterback on his high school football team. One Saturday, before he came home from a game, I got the idea of doing a cheerleader’s “cheer” for him as he walked through the front door, complete with pom poms. My other brother and my parents were not around.
I could see and hear him walking across our front porch to the front door of the house and I got ready in the living room. He opened the door and I did my “cheer”—something like: “Push em’ back! Push ’em back! Waaaay back! Yay Team!”—right there in the living room. He gave me a glance, no more than that, and headed up the stairs. There was no way he could have missed me—between the “cheer” and my proximity. He did not have vision or hearing problems. Our living room began about 5 feet from the front door of the house and the stairway leading upstairs was about 3 ½ feet from the front door. I mean—it was a small house.
The tape of this memory ran in my head several dozen times while I worried about Max’s fate and arrived home. As I was falling asleep later, I could feel myself sinking into a languid pool of depression, the kind that first envelopes you in a tender caress of well-deserved pity, progresses on to a self-righteous moaning and culminates in stupefying loathing for the entire human race, including yourself. Either he came to live in my apartment or he didn’t. If he did, I should not care what my parent’s thought since, between the two of them, they disapproved of practically everything.
Actually, what was I thinking? Why wouldn’t he have his own bed?
The following week Sam and Rita entered the office one afternoon, introduced themselves with little smiles on their faces, walked into Martin’s office where I caught a glimpse of him speaking tersely into the phone, and slammed the door. Sam walked like my high school English teacher, swiveling his hips so the girls would swoon. I’ll bet a lot of them do, I thought, listening to a tenant telling me water was gushing out of a pipe like a waterfall.
“Isn’t it more like a lazy stream?” I said, tapping my desk with a pencil and watching Marcella jam a letter opener into the copier’s innards.
“No, it’s comin’ fast,” the tenant said firmly.
“How fast?” I tried to keep my tone light. “It’s just dripping isn’t it?”
“Would you please send somebody over here right now?” she yelled.
“I’ll try,” I said, feigning nonchalance, “Bye, now.” I knew that water was filling her apartment but I could not fix all the problems in this world. I really could not!
Martin’s door opened. Sam and Rita looked satisfied as they walked by my desk to leave. Sam stopped before he got to the exit and swiveled over to me. Rita kept going.
“So,” he said, “I hear you’ve been trying to help Max.” Jerry and I had had several conversations that week about Max, during which I offered to take him in. Jerry stared at me in disbelief each time I said it.
“That’s right,” I said, suddenly fiddling with the stuff on my desk.
The phone rang.
“Leave it,” Sam said.
I obeyed, looking up at him from my seat behind the desk as if in a trance. He really was marvelous looking.
“It’s taken care of,” he said calmly, watching my reaction to him.
“Oh,” I said, “okay.” The phone continued to ring but it seemed like a far away jingling sound.
He tapped on my desk twice with his knuckles, gave me a dazzling smile and left.
I was furious with myself for behaving like a weak female transfixed by his looks and attitude. Martin came out of his office looking unsettled too, as if he had just had his wallet swiped. But the problem was solved, apparently. The next afternoon an office supply company delivered a new desk and leather chair for Max. Jerry came in soon afterward and told me Max was staying on in the apartment.
Late in the afternoon when the phones quieted down I gave my mother a call to wish her a happy St. Patrick’s Day. Marcella passed by my desk several times spraying air freshener all over the place while my mother reminded me to send a card to my Uncle Rocco for his birthday. Max strolled in shortly afterward, sat down at his new desk and started making phone calls to place bets.
Sam was standing outside on the sidewalk when I left the building at 5:00.
“Isabel, can I take you out for some dinner?” he said politely, walking quickly towards me as I headed in the other direction.
I stopped and looked around for Rita.
“Aren’t you married?” I said.
“It’s just dinner,” he said, smiling.
My parents had always taught me to be honest.
“Then I’m not interested,” I said, surprising both of us.
He was silent, trying to figure out this turn of events.
“Come on,” I said, continuing towards my apartment, “Come have a look at my fabulous paintings.”
At my parent’s house there was a large red velvet anniversary card sitting on the breakfront in the dining room that stated: To My Wonderful Husband. An even bigger card stood at attention right next to it that said: To My Darling Wife.