Issue 211, Winter 2014
It was about a year after the car accident when the thoughts came back to me. They’d been gone so long that I’d forgotten all about them, but when they came back, they came back fast. They came back all at once.
I was at my get-well party when it happened. “Just for you,” my brother had said, putting his arm around my shoulder, breathing in my face. There was a big sign on the wall that said get well soon, wally, but I’d been well for four months. We all knew the party was really just for my brother, just so he could show off his wife’s newfound culinary skills, and show off his Brooklyn brownstone, which he’d remodeled from scratch, all cherrywood and spiral staircase. There were fifty people milling around, chatting with their mouths full of shrimp. Most of them I’d never seen before. I wanted to make a statement by not eating anything, but after fifteen minutes I gave in and loaded up my plastic plate.
“Good, right?” one of my in-laws said.
He was right, it was good.
Up and down the spiral staircase, my mother and father flitted, praising everything they saw, followed by aunts and uncles, cousins of cousins, family I hadn’t heard from in years, probably wouldn’t hear from again in years. “We were so worried about you,” they said as they passed, but none of them had come to visit me in the hospital.
Everyone was dressed casually for the occasion, flip-flops and tank tops, but I was wearing a tie, because there was a chance I might meet someone who might do something for me. “Something” meant anything other than driving a dairy truck, which is what I’d been doing for two years, six days a week, before an SUV swerved into my lane at eighty-five miles an hour, at five o’clock in the morning, sending me and four thousand eggs through the windshield. I’d broken both legs and injured my spine. Now I was collecting workers’ comp, despite having made a full recovery, lying to the doctors about my health, hoping to stretch my checks out until Plan A finally took shape. Plan A was the mystery guest I was going to meet at this party.
Prior to Plan A, however, I had had a very different Plan A. This one was dreamed up during that long convalescence in which no one had come to visit me, in which I had nothing but downtime to contemplate my life at twenty-one in a dairy truck, dressed in baby-blue coveralls with my name stitched on the breast pocket as if I were a child who might get lost.
I’d made a friend in the hospital, Sylvester Y., middle-aged with a shattered coccyx, who did mail order from home. It was good money for little work. I was envious of him, and I said so. He had a dead son of whom I reminded him. “Same hair,” he told me, “same chuckle.” It was unsettling, but I got used to it.
Together, we’d hatched our scheme one morning, six weeks into my stay, the two of us sitting around in our wheelchairs, staring at the wall, waiting for the nurses to come get us.
“So I was watching this episode of Law & Order last night,” said Sylvester, who was always watching Law & Order or one of its spin-offs, and then telling the patients and doctors about it as if it was real life and he had really been there and everyone else should have really been there, too.
“You ever do anything except watch TV?” I’d asked him once.
“Yes,” he said, “sometimes I look at YouTube.”
His intention had been to entertain me with the details of this particular Law & Order episode, but lolling there in the fluorescent hallway, with our minds free to wander, we’d begun to take the story apart and reassemble it, bit by bit, from the criminal’s perspective, each of us casually offering our own piece of the puzzle—basement entry, getaway car—until it had come together so perfectly, so naturally, that we didn’t know what we were doing until we were done. Afterward, we sat silent, breathing slowly, staring at the wall with the rainbow mural as if at a masterpiece. But now four months had passed with no word from Sylvester, chuckle or no chuckle, and my checks would soon be running out.
Two hours into my party the hors d’oeuvres were starting to get to me. I was perspiring near the bay window while a man in sandals tried to explain how we were related. “Your grandmother’s sister and my mother’s brother . . . ” He had crumbs on his chin. I wanted to get away from him, far away, to get outside to where the children were playing, where the real party was happening. Through the bay window I could hear them shouting invented obscenities inspired by what they’d consumed that afternoon. “Ketchup!” they shouted. “Hamburger!” Their words held secret meaning. They responded with mock outrage. I watched them knock each other down and get back up. Nothing could hurt their young limbs. Nothing could dissuade them. The time for living was now.
For a moment I swayed unsteadily, fearing I might vomit on my relative’s exposed toes. He was oblivious, sketching the family tree in the air, four cousins out, three generations down, branches upon branches. I couldn’t follow a thing.
“It’s all interconnected,” he said.
“It sure is,” I said, and I pushed past him, and fled into the backyard where a breeze was blowing and dusk was coming.
“Come play with us, Uncle Wally,” the children cried, even the ones who weren’t my nieces or nephews. I was popular. I was famous. They grabbed me tight around the legs, asking if they could see the injury, asking why I was wearing a tie.
“Are you rich?” they wanted to know.
“I will be,” I said.
They were excited by my appearance, and I was revived. They weren’t squeamish with blood and scars, so I rolled up my pant leg, just past the calf, right where the steering wheel had cut diagonally across the flesh and severed the bone. “Here and here,” I told them, but it was obvious where they needed to look. Their eyes were wide, their faces flushed. They wanted to know if my leg was made of metal, they wanted to know if they could touch. “Of course,” I said, and they lined up, taking turns, politely running their fingers along the twisted curve of my shin. First my niece and nephew examined, then their little friends, then the friends of their friends, then this woman, suddenly, one of the mothers I supposed, wearing a red dress with a yellow sash that accentuated her hips.
“Does it hurt, Wally?” she asked. How she knew my name, I didn’t know. I had a brief image of hugging her and kissing her on the lips.
“No,” I said, “it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“That’s good,” she said. She was full of empathy and kindness, this woman, with her brown hair and brown eyes, and when she bent down to gently run her fingers along the wound I could glimpse the tops of her breasts.
I said, “Whose mother are you?” And she looked up at me, laughing, and all the children around her were laughing, dancing and laughing at the funny joke I had made, and it was then that I realized, with horror, that this woman wasn’t a woman at all, but a little girl, maybe eight years old, maybe six. That’s when the thoughts came back to me.
What came back specifically and vividly was the comic-book shop in New Jersey that my brother took me to soon after he’d gotten his driver’s license. It was forty miles outside of the city and housed in a converted depository that still said a & j tomatoes from back when everything was farmland. Lightbulbs hung from the rafters, shining bad light on a million-plus comic books stuffed in trunks and bins and whatnot. The owner of the store was an overweight man, three hundred pounds, who apparently had played college football years ago, but now sat in a wooden booth ten feet off the floor so that he could observe the goings-on in his establishment. Next to him was the cash register, and when you paid your money you had to place it in a little wicker basket that he would lift up on a string. The rumor was that if he caught you shoplifting he’d take you out by the dumpsters and beat with you a baseball bat and then let you keep the merchandise.
No one ever knew what they were going to uncover in this store, what first edition they might find buried under a pile of worthlessness. So the patrons hunted as if they were squirrels, clawing, scraping, until the owner, feeling put upon, would shout through his bullhorn, “No more looking! Let’s make a selection!” His voice would boom through the depository as men and boys obediently fell into line, each one waiting his turn with the little basket on the string.
It took forty-five minutes to get to A&J Tomatoes and my brother used the drive as an opportunity to dispense advice. He was good at advice. He was seventeen and I was twelve. He was going to college and I was getting bad grades. Study hard was something he’d suggest. Also, apply yourself. “Find something you like,” he’d tell me, “and pursue it with everything you have. Like geometry.” I was terrible at geometry, but his counsel made sense in theory, and midway through the trip I would see inner passion materializing, and also dedication, and all the loose ends of my life tying up in a bow. “I’m going to do it this time!” I’d say, pounding my fists on my knees, and my brother would put his hand on my shoulder, lovingly, saying, “I know you can, Wally.” But we both knew that it was most likely hopeless, that he was saying the things my father had stopped saying a long time ago because my father had given up.
My brother owned five thousand comic books, sealed in individual plastic sleeves, organized alphabetically and chronologically, and stored upright on shelves in the utility closet so that their spines wouldn’t become creased and diminish their value. He was keen on keeping them in pristine condition so that they “would last forever.” But eventually he outgrew them and went to college, and the collection he gave to me as a farewell gift. The day he left, I stood in our lobby on Eighty-Third Street with Mom and Dad, watching him drive off, waving in the rearview. Then the next thing I did was haul the comic books into my bedroom and take them out of their plastic sleeves and stuff them in the bottom of my closet. I didn’t care about keeping them pristine, I cared about reading them, each and every one of them. Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, and all those heroes in between. Heroes who died, heroes who came back, heroes who died and never came back.
I began at the beginning, back when they cost twenty-five cents each, lying in bed at night with a flashlight, slowly making my way toward four dollars. My father would occasionally appear in the doorway, frustrated, sullen, staring at me, saying, “Your brain’s going to turn to mush.”
I’d say, “It’s too late to worry about that now, isn’t it?”
He had no answer for that, and by the time I’d finished reading them I was close to graduating from high school myself and driving out to New Jersey alone.
And it was there, at the comic-book shop, one afternoon during the summer I turned nineteen, that I saw something that would alter my brain forever.
I remember that it had been a Sunday and that the store had been more crowded than usual for a Sunday. It had also been hotter than usual, one of the first hot days of the summer, and the only fan in the depository was the fan that blew on the owner in his booth. I’d been in the store for about half an hour, perspiring, trying to push my way through to the more coveted areas, before finally giving up and wandering off to a corner in the back where I found a metal bin that was filled with old issues of The Incredible Hulk. A lightbulb hung above my head, poorly placed, casting shadows and causing me to twist in order to bring the comic books into the light. It didn’t really matter, I’d already read all the issues, but I flipped through them anyway, bored out of my mind, until I came across a magazine about the size of a comic book, but no more than fifteen pages, with a picture of a little girl on the cover.
It wasn’t that unusual to discover things in the shop that didn’t belong— I’d once found thirty years of the Newark Yellow Pages—and at first glance I didn’t think much of anything regarding this particular magazine. Perhaps it was for children, I thought, or about children, or about child rearing. But there was something peculiar about the photograph that made me linger a little longer, something about the way the little girl was smiling at the camera, strangely coquettish. She was dressed in a checkered skirt and pink socks that drooped to her ankles. Lollipop Girls, the title read in purple typeface. The magazine looked like it had been printed quickly and cheaply, bad ink on thin paper, and I would have put it down if it hadn’t been for the outrageous price that caught my eye, surely a typo, printed on the cover: one hundred and thirty-five dollars.
So I bent forward out of the shadows, and I opened the magazine to see that the girl was now without her checkered skirt, sitting on top of her bed, encircled by a dozen teddy bears. She was still smiling broadly at the camera, as if nothing was out of the ordinary, as if she might just be having her school picture taken without her skirt. Her polka-dot panties were showing. “My name is Sabrina,” the caption read. She had long blonde hair that was pulled back by a rubber band. Behind her, a window faced out onto what looked like an orchard or a forest. The scene had an idyllic, make-believe quality, as if it were from some playland or from Disney. Perhaps this is a Disney story, I told myself. But on the next page the girl’s socks were missing, and so was her shirt. Her toenails were painted with girly sparkles, but her chest was like a boy’s. She sat with her chin on her palms, her elbows on her knees, her knees slightly parted. She was playing at disinterest. She looked polished and clean, as if she’d just come out of a bath. She seemed to be enjoying the attention of the camera, seemed even to be suppressing laughter in what might all be fun and games. Fun and games that now included a man who sat beside her on her bed. He was dressed and bald. He could have been a professor or a father. He could have been the friendly neighbor next door in the orchard. His enormous body contrasted with her delicate one. A black bar had been printed to obscure his eyes but you could see that he was laughing along with the girl. One of his hands encircled her waist, pulling her closer to him in an easygoing way, as his other hand tugged gently at the elastic band of her polka-dot panties.
I turned the page.
“No more looking! Let’s make a selection!”
I called Sylvester Y. on a Tuesday. “He’s not here on Tuesdays,” his wife said. He’d never mentioned a wife when we were together in the hospital. He’d only mentioned a son. Where Sylvester was, she did not know. When he would be back, she did not know that, either.
I didn’t believe her. What I believed was that he’d taken our beautiful plan and executed it by himself.
“Is he there on Wednesdays?” I asked, but she’d already hung up.
I’d waited too long to call. I understood this. “Be proactive,” my brother had always told me when we were growing up. But I was young and didn’t know what “proactive” had meant and now it was too late. The dairy bosses no longer cared that I was infirm—which I wasn’t. They wanted me back to work. They wanted me back in the truck.
The landlord was onto me, too. Or at least I thought he was. In the morning, I would see him outside tinkering on the roof, shirt off, tool belt on. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and he’d worked up a sweat. If you didn’t know he was the landlord, you would think he was the guy who worked for the landlord. “Good morning,” he’d call, and I’d wave back with neighborliness, thinking about how in a month I’d be asking him for a break.
“How are you feeling?” he wanted to know.
“Ups and downs,” I said. He seemed dubious.
It took a dozen more calls to Sylvester before he finally called me back. I could hear the television going in the background. “If you’re not serious about this,” I told him, “tell me now.” I was trying to be cool, but then I shouted, “Tell me now!”
He said he was serious, he was damn serious. Apparently, he was in the same position that I was, misleading the authorities, stretching out the benefits. His wife had acted with caution.
“Do I sound like the government?” I said.
“You can never be too careful,” he said.
He seemed old on the phone, he seemed like he might be on pain medication, and I felt bad for him. I felt bad for shouting. According to Sylvester it wasn’t Sylvester who wasn’t serious, but some third party he’d never mentioned, who’d decided to drop out at the last minute. Apparently, it was the third party who had the connection. The connection was the cousin of a friend. It was the friend who had the cousin. It was the cousin who worked at the credit union. It was the credit union we were trying to get to.
But Sylvester Y. said that it was better without this third party because it meant one less person we’d have to split it with.
“Any day now,” he said. “Wait for my call.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
But I had no choice but to wait, trying to hold everything at bay, waking each morning to the sound of the landlord’s hammer just above my head.
A few days after I had discovered that magazine, I went back to the comic-book shop. I knew it was a troubling sign that I was going back. I knew it was a troubling sign that I knew it was a troubling sign and that I still couldn’t stop myself. The store hadn’t even opened yet when I arrived and I had to stand around with three guys who wanted to talk to me about Batman. The moment the owner unlocked the door I was right back in the corner, pawing through the metal bin with the back issues of The Incredible Hulk, the lone lightbulb dangling above my head. But the magazine was gone.
On the floor by my feet sat a gigantic trunk filled with third-rate comic books going for half price—Richie Rich, that type of thing. I got down on my knees and went through those, too. But the magazine wasn’t there. Nor was it in the next three boxes I looked in. Nor was it in any of the crates, chests, or cases. Through the depository I roamed, rummaging, rooting, elbowing my way into all the nooks and crannies. Two hours later, my fingers stained with ink, I returned to where I’d started: the bin with the issues of The Incredible Hulk. Surely, I must have thumbed through too heedlessly and overlooked the obvious. But no, the magazine wasn’t there. And now that I had begun, I couldn’t stop myself from retracing every one of my steps, stooping down to the Richie Rich comic books again, where I was certain that someone, the owner maybe, must have seen the magazine and mistaken it for a children’s magazine and decided to put it with something more age appropriate.
Beneath my logic lurked the knowledge that the task before me was tremendous, the odds astronomical. Amid the piles of comic books, stacked floor to ceiling, it would never be possible to find something specific. No one ever entered the store thinking they could. They entered to browse and discover, not locate. But the moment the thought of surrender entered my head, it was engulfed by a more powerful thought: the image of the girl. Her pretty face, her blonde hair, her coquettish smile. I could picture her clearly. “My name is Sabrina.” Her knees parted and her polka-dot panties slowly being tugged away. If only I could have turned the page to see what had happened next. If only I could have caught one more glimpse of her, I would have been satisfied.
So I went forward with renewed strength and vitality, the girl perfectly formed in my mind, tantalizingly formed, willfully ignoring the owner’s command to stop looking and make a selection, until finally, near closing time, hungry and exhausted, my legs weak beneath me, I was overtaken by the terrifying certainty that what I was doing was pointless. The magazine was no longer in the store: it had been purchased.
Thus began my season of compulsion. I could not rid myself of the images. No matter what I did, the face of the girl remained fixed in my brain. I tried jogging. I tried swimming. I tried working double shifts in the dairy truck. But every thirty minutes, every fifteen minutes, there she was again, looking at me through the windshield.
“Save me,” she called, her voice small and plaintive. But rather than driving a truck down city streets, I was flying through the sky over an orchard. The story unfolded in comic-book form with panels and dialogue bubbles, with me plummeting through the air, full of force and vigor, the way superheroes do, my cape billowing, crashing straight through the girl’s bedroom window. The man with the black bar across his eyes fell to his knees, begging me not to hurt him. “Please,” he implored, “have mercy on me.” But the time for mercy had passed. I lifted him by his collar and hurled him through the open window. And then it was just the girl and me, alone in her bedroom, the girl jumping into my arms, thanking me for having rescued her. She was small and light. She felt fragile like a doll. “My name is Sabrina,” she said.
Thinking that I might somehow be liberated by destroying the comic books, I drove them to the dump one afternoon, two car trips with the backseat filled, and I tossed them over, all five thousand of them, including first editions.
But still she remained.
In the spring I went to see a psychologist, on West Fourteenth Street, who I only told half the story to.
“Obsession” is what I said I was suffering from, it seemed an apt description, but I never said obsession about what.
“Obsession in general,” I said.
He agreed with the term, he wanted to “know more.” I couldn’t give him more. He wanted to know about my childhood, but my childhood had been ordinary. I suggested that perhaps that this was causing my obsession: ordinariness.
“Let’s not worry about diagnosing,” he said. He said it gently, but I wasn’t sure what he meant.
Every Thursday at one o’clock I lay on his maroon couch, staring at the ceiling, listening to the air-conditioning blowing, waiting for either of us to start talking.
One afternoon, apropos of nothing, I happened to tell him about a cat I’d once had when I was a little boy, Lucky Joe, who’d fallen sixteen flights off my balcony on East Eighty-Third Street.
“He was a beautiful cat,” I said.
“Cats don’t just fall off balconies,” the therapist said.
But this one had. He’d been perched on the railing, the way cats are wont to do, and he’d been startled by something and lost his footing. I remember that my brother and I went downstairs, both of us sobbing, to retrieve the body, but we could find nothing.
“How could there be no body?” the therapist had wanted to know.
Perhaps I’d remembered it wrong.
“Perhaps you’ve remembered it right,” he said.
“Perhaps he survived,” I said.
He was a nice-enough man, this therapist, full of patience and understanding, though I often wondered how long the understanding would last if he’d known what was really running through my troubled mind. But the price was two hundred dollars a session, and my insurance only covered 40 percent, not counting the deductible, and after four months I cut off the treatment by way of a phone call.
I hoped that over time I would simply forget everything and go back to being who I had been: a young man driving a dairy truck for a living. How quaint that life now seemed. And it was true that the girl’s face faded from memory, but it was immediately replaced by the faces of other little girls. Little girls in Times Square, for instance. Or in the playground. Eventually, I forgot if Sabrina had been blonde or brunette. Eventually, I forgot her name. I began to stop by the elementary school after my morning shift and watch the girls screaming with glee in their last moments of freedom. Then the bell would ring and they would disappear inside and I would drive home.
I’m just going through a phase, I told myself. But the phase continued into winter. I began to park my truck on side streets, where girls walked alone on their way to school. They would pass by, oblivious to me sitting in the front seat, their books and bags occasionally brushing against the side of the car. Sometimes I’d roll down my window and rest my baby-blue coverall arm on the door. If a girl approached I would smile at her. It seemed like it would be quite easy to start up a conversation. “What’s your favorite class?” for instance. The prospect of such ease enticed me. Then it terrified me. I promised I would never park there again. I broke the promise. So I promised again. Then I broke it again.
Then one morning I went through the windshield at five o’clock in the morning and suddenly I had other things to occupy my mind.
I had other things to occupy my mind now, too. Namely, Sylvester Y. calling me, and not a moment too soon, with good news: the third party was back in. He was back in and ready to go.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Sylvester said. He was shouting and laughing.
The old feelings of possibility returned. “Yes,” I said, “yes, you did tell me!” My voice quavered with gratitude. How could I have ever doubted? I feared for a moment that I might weep.
We met at his house two nights later, deep in Queens. Our plan was to meet to talk about our plan. That was the first step. After the first step came action. After action came new beginnings.
“Come on in, Wally,” Sylvester said. He shook my hand like a businessman. I liked that. He lived in one of those small houses, once new, now poor. “I’m glad you could make it,” he said. He made it seem as if I’d been the one holding everything up. He was dressed in a sports coat that was too tight for him because he was a big man. He smelled like cologne. He hobbled with affliction.
I was surprised to find his wife waiting in the living room. Was she the third party? She was dressed like she might be on her way out to a show, heels and lipstick.
“This is the one I told you about,” Sylvester said to her. She took both my hands in hers. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said. She held my gaze too long.
The television was on, tuned to the Yankees game, turned up loud. Above the television was the mantle. On the mantle was a portrait of a young man I assumed was their deceased son, captured around the age of ten. Sylvester was right, the boy could have been my younger brother. I wanted to tell them that I was sorry for their loss, but too much time seemed to have passed.
The wife set a plastic bowl of potato chips on the coffee table. “Help yourself,” she said. I took a handful and sat down on the couch in the corner. Sylvester switched off the TV, and the little living room went silent and calm, and then he said, “First things first, I want to thank you for coming today.”
I told him, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
This delighted him and his wife, they smiled and laughed, and the laughter went on for a while. I kept hoping his wife would leave us to it, to get down to business, but instead she sat beside me.
Next to Sylvester was an easel with a giant pad of paper propped on it. He pulled out a blue marker from his pocket and uncorked it with a flourish.
“Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule,” he announced, which made no sense.
“I don’t have a schedule,” I said.
He ignored this. “I know what it’s like to be a working man.” He spoke with a false familiarity, a salesman’s tone, as if he was meeting me for the first time. He started sketching a map on the pad. At the top of the map was the credit union I presumed, at the bottom was us, in the middle was the third party. It was a simple pyramid and it made sense. What didn’t make sense was that he was talking to me about toilet paper and facial tissue, about how doesn’t everyone need these things. He would sell to me, he explained, and I’d sell to others. “Everyone makes money from money,” he said.
I leaned forward on the couch. “What exactly are you talking about?” I asked.
Sylvester paused and put the cap on his marker. He affected a sad face. “I knew you’d be skeptical,” he said. Then he smiled an overly warm smile. He looked at me deeply. “I was skeptical once, too.”
“Skeptical about what?” I asked.
“I’m not skeptical,” his wife said.
“What happened to our plan?” I said.
“We’ve changed our plan,” he said.
“This is a good plan,” his wife said.
“This is a better plan!”
“This is an opportunity!”
“An opportunity for what?” I was standing now.
“Tell him about the opportunities,” his wife said.
“I’d be most happy to.” He cleared his throat and began: “I buy bulk from my contact and you buy bulk from your contact—which is me.”
“This only comes around once in a lifetime,” the wife said.
“The gentleman above me,” Sylvester continued, “made a hundred and fifty thousand dollars last year.” His wife whistled low.
“The gentleman above him made three hundred and thirty-five thousand.” He wrote the number on the pad as if writing it would make it so.
“Laundry detergent,” the wife said. “Everyone needs laundry detergent.”
Sylvester handed me a brochure. “Promise me you’ll at least consider it.” On the cover was a montage of household products along with a couple reclining on a beach.
“I think he will,” the wife said.
“I sure hope so,” Sylvester said.
“Maybe,” I said. But standing there in the living room, with husband and wife and little brother staring at me, I knew I was doomed.