WHEN A STRANGER CALLS
He was a most impossible man. In the best of time, one would do with him by finding some virtues to taciturnity and quietness. At least, those close mouth types let others do the talking and for that, their dullness, the verbose will hint in spite, they look the wiser most of the time. However, under stress, Joe Solinsky could be as detestable as it is possible to be and then, he would leave the victim of his insensibility running wildly to his Webster dictionary trying to locate a word surpassing in villainy whatever such notion the first was conveying. He had no social skills at a time when those were humanity’s most essential attributes. He was rude when people’s response to incivility could be ferocious. The fact that he was judged odious by many may have been a symptom of their own intolerance. The last was, at least, the opinion of Joe Solinski when confronted on his character and the difficulties of dealing with him. To the charge that a simple conversation could be sometime, most of the time indeed, a trial, he would shout to his accusers, mostly his mother when she was living: “What trial? What hardship? What difficulties? There is nothing wrong with me!” And usually, if one would care to take the time of looking into his vindications, they would make some kind of sense but still, they served at nothing lest confirming whomever the bad opinion they had of him. Friends, he did not care about. The ones he had were the placid kind who would not fight anybody over anything. He had brothers and sisters that he couldn’t stand. In a discussion, he would vex all sides of an argument and pretend afterward that he had no idea of what those silly people were talking about. He lived alone in a small bungalow in St-Petersburg not far from the sea. Not far being two miles away that he used to walk or bike but that was a long time ago. When Martha and their son Tom were living there with him. Little Tommy. Little Tommy that must be what, 22 or 23 nowadays. He was now living with a girl in a mobile home community not far away and they were not talking much. He had seen him the year before though. His son stopping at his home on 31st street with the view on the Seven/Eleven in front of his place. Quite convenient, having this store nearby.
Tom was not as physical as his father who had that Brando like presence of Stan Kowalski as in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. The son was as frail as his father was strong, as reserved as the older man was loud. A dog was hiding behind his master, keeping his distance, the leash in Tom’s hand touching the ground and the small animal mumbling and inimical.
- “Will you keep that howling Terrier quiet”, Joe had said to his midget of a son.
He had opened the door to the other’s ringing. Now both men were facing each other. Tom addressed his four leg companion:
- “Nice, Toby, nice.”
Under that command, the canine yapped twice and then, got himself occupied with his genitals.
- “What is it you want?”
There was nothing wrong with his son. And nothing worth mentioning either. As a matter of fact, his son was a letdown as most of everything was for Joe. Whatever he had or had had never was to his liking. He was of a suspicious disposition and had a knack at discovering the fault line in all things living or inert. He entertained that notion that the world owed him a debt that would be left unpaid and for this he hated the world, its people and himself. He hated himself for always making the wrong choices and having to live with their outcome. He hated himself even more for the life he had, which he didn’t appreciate as he should and the reason for that was this same pattern already described taking over on all that was around him. He was not happy but would have fought you over the use of the word unhappiness as applying to his situation. He was not happy but was not suffering much because of it, not knowing what it was to be contented. He was not a bad person. There was no cruelty in him. He would not hurt anybody on purpose. He was just doing it unknowingly as in walking and crushing insects in his path.
- “It is grandma,” his son then had said.
- “What about her?”
The kid was a disappointment. Not much of a man to his sense of things. A mommy’s boy was all he was. Always had been. Since birth. Taking his mother’s side in all issues even the uncommon occurrence when he Joe was on the right. Like when Tom was ten and had bet the dollar his aunt had just given him with his cousin over some game of ping pong. He had lost and made such a fuss over paying the money, why, his brother told him he had cried, that Eric had thrown the money back at Tom, on the ground, like it was dirt, challenging the wretched looser to pick it up if he could.
When hearing of the tale, Joe had told Tom to send the money back and to apologise. “I can’t,” his son had responded, already starting his wailing again. Then his mother had gotten in and the dispute had fizzled out into nothingness.
- “She needs to talk to you”.
Joe had his work clothes on. His shift started at 10h00. In his hand was his still unfinished cup of instant. Looking at his watch, he had said to Tom:
- “Why aren’t you at Wall Mart?”
He was working there, mopping floors or something. But at that moment, he wasn’t.
- “I called in sick”.
What a wimp, that boy of his. What a sorry specimen he was. The unmistakable fact was that he did look sickly; he had his mother’s ailing face, with the skin kind of yellowish and his posture was like a structure likely to fall the next minute.
- “Still you have walked here.”
He had impregnated the girl he was with two times and had left her as soon as learning the fact.
Why on earth was he back with her now? Maybe she wanted a third.
- “Time for Toby’s stroll.”
- “O.K. I will call her, he said.” And then he had closed the door in Tom’ face.
x x x x x
One year after that encounter, he moved temporarily to his mother’s place at Point-Brittany. She was living there in a four and a half condo apartment on the second floor of a building that had eighteen. And a grand name he had, that edifice. The ESSEX! His father had worked all his life at FORD MOTOR COMPANY and through the years, had ploughed his way to middle management. And when the time came for him to retire, both his parents had come in Saint-Petersburg where he himself was working as a mechanic at a Ford Dealership. A good well paying job. One his now very sick father had got him. His father was now hospitalised, hence the need for Joe to knock at his mother’s door. She had got him in, throwing at him a suspicious look. In the living room, he had sat in his father’s easy chair. She had hissed at him:
- “I don’t need you here.”
- “Well, mom, you can’t live alone.”
- “The hell I can’t.”
- “We must go, now.”
- “Where is your father, anyway?”
- “He had a stroke. You remember?”
- “What are you talking about? He has had nothing of the sort.”
- “Well, mom…”
- “He is just lazy. Never got to change that bulb in the kitchen as I asked him to do.”
Now, she was sobbing. Through the tears that rolled on her face, she erupted over hiccup:
- “What is to become of me?”
His mother’s family was from Tampa. His aunt Carol still lived there. That night, the first following his father’s stroke, her mother had stayed at her sister’s place while he had slept alone in the condo. All could see that his father would never make it back to health. Up to this misfortune, his old man was the reason why they could still make it as a couple at Point-Brittany. Why, his mother who suffered from Alzheimer disease wouldn’t get through one day alone without getting herself into trouble.
So, he had been in the flat having the place all for himself and this was a small mercy, thanks to Carol’s hospitality. He went on the balcony and from there, the view was over the water and the million dollar homes wherever there was ground left to put them on. The sun, hot and relentless, was high in the sky. In the kitchen fridge, there was not much to eat. The freezer, though, was packed full of macaroni and lasagna dinners in their neat little individual packages. So that was what his parents sustained themselves with? He remembered his mother’s cooking and contemplated the deterioration of her mind, her who would never have considered eating that kind of food before. Her mother had a mind of her own, she alone capable to oppose him, telling him once that he couldn’t bully his way into her life. He hadn’t done that but, for unknown reasons of her own, she had that notion that he opposed everything she said. And she reciprocated by opposing him the same way. So, that was the extent of their relationship and this did not leave much room for any. Which his father who was the taciturn type also did not seem to mind.
x x x x x
He saw him walking on the sidewalk outside the Essex building. He was younger than himself. What made him take notice was the kid near him. A small boy, six or seven at the most. At Point-Brittany, children, you didn’t see many of them at this time of the year since most residents full time were like his parents. Older! Man and boy were talking. A fellow of 40 or so who was showing pain in his eyes. The young one though was all innocence and play, jumping a red and white rubber ball in front of him as he was treading along. Both Middle East type. The man had a beard one inch long or so and very black. His hairs were cut short and from his point of observation, he could distinguish the olive pigmentation of their skins, that man and his boy. Then, he had looked away. What were they to him, those strangers? He had no interest in them. He had interest in nobody for that matter. It was five in the afternoon. His mother was at the Saint-Mary’s hospital. He would go and pick her up at eight. That morning, as he was home, Carol had said to him over the phone:
- “She has been here three days now and is all confused. Maybe she should go back home.”
Which explained why after his shift he had drive to Point-Brittany.
- “She will have to move”, he had responded.
- “We have to find a place for her. The social worker at the hospital is busy on it. Meanwhile…”
- “I can’t stay with her forever.”
- “Yes, I know. Anyway…”
- “Don’t let these people at the hospital know that we are there to look after them. If they think there is no support out here, they will find her a place faster.”
- “That’s easy to say. And what, she is my sister.”
- “I do this. It is fine with me. But I work.”
- “Yes, I know. Oh, I don’t know what to do.”
- “Whatever. I will do what I can.”
So, he would sleep at Point-Brittany again tonight and what, maybe some other nights and this time, he would bring his mother back from the hospital to the condo. He had his supper with some of his father’s macaroni dishes. There was beer in the fridge. Coors Light. He had one of those too. While eating, he took a look around him. He could recognise the furniture that he recollected from the time he was a kid and living with his parents. All that would have to go. There was nothing in here that he wanted for himself. He had two uncles on his father’s side. One lived in Tulsa. The other, in Miami. They wouldn’t care for the stuff in this place. Carol could have it all. What about Tom? That nitwit wouldn’t know what to do with the material, why he had no good sense at all and what, he would end up pestering him to keep around the few pieces of junk he had a notion that he might someday find some use for. And him hoarding it the time it would take his son to organise his life which means how many decades, no thank you very much. What a fool this progeny of his was. Just seeing him with that stupid canine was enough to make him sick. Let Carol deal with this. As far as he was concerned, they could all plunder the place. There was nothing in here worth any concern of his. He would not loose any sleep over that sorry business. This brought to him the question of where he would be sleeping tonight. He walked to the T.V. room and sat on the sofa bed. He saw his image in the 21 inches screen of the two decade old color Panasonic. He got the T.V. going and his mute silhouette was soon replaced by images of the war in Afganistan diffused on the CNN network.
x x x x x
There were some books on both sides of the television. To the left, his mother’s, on the right, his father’s. Silly things, most of it. Written words. So many of them and the same purpose for all: make you think their way.
He had failed his father as his son had failed him. His father who would have liked him to have an education and he being the master of schemes to dispense with the privilege. No reason needed except that it was what they expected of him. Hence his looking down on the College boys, their books, their erudition, their talks and beliefs. His father who was telling him to find his place in life. To find it and settle in it, to be his own master, to like who he was and the choices he made along the way. That was like investing. Everything grows that stays in the same place. Find your place and grow, was his father’s motto. Life in the end was the reaching of that spot, getting to that place that you knew you had found when discovering it, like that piece of a puzzle that will not accept anything except that space where it belongs.
His father who used to say he was a man of place. Place was where a man stood in life. For each of all billions of human particles on earth, there was one and only one assigned place and finding it was what life was all about. Most of such seekers never found that place. And that explained why existence consisted so much of a lousy process. But for those who made it to that nirvana of a space, what a marvellous sensation it gave them. One place where you felt secure and unchallenged, where nobody could oust you out from or take it away from you since it was your place and none whishing to be in that spot of yours because it was not their place to be and they knew it. As one knew instantly when he was there by not whishing to be anywhere else. While the unfortunate lot of still without their places were left unwise and searching, battling for positions that left them unfulfilled and looking for others in a course of a forever repeated pursue to discover what they, except a sage few, wouldn’t recognise even if by chance, they would have toppled in it.
As for Joe, he was still searching.
But was not in danger to lose sleep over the process.
x x x x x
It was perhaps the second or the third days he was sleeping at Point Britanny. When it was time to leave the hospital at night, there was always a last minute change of plan and his mother would get in Carol’s car in direction of Tampa. He didn’t mind but if she were to stay at Carol’s place, why ask him to leave his own house. It was then that he had heard a noise coming from somewhere.
Ploc, ploc ploc, and then the sound of a hard ball rolling on the wood floor. That got it out of his musing.
He opened his eyes and realised that he was non longer sitting on the sofa but elongated on it while his head had found the cushion that was laying at one extremity to serve as a pillow. He got up and looked at his watch.
Not yet the time to fetch his mother.
Ploc, ploc, ploc and that rolling sound.
And yet, there was that noise again. He looked at the ceiling. Who was responsible for that racket? Surely it was the apartment upstairs.
Ploc, ploc, ploc and rolling sound.
And it was loud, like if someone was hammering the floor with a metallic instrument. He got up, disturbed and it didn’t take much to put him in a state of agitation. What, he asked himself, how long one must endure this nuisance before acting? He hoped the clatter over his head was temporary, that whatever the reason for it to happen would settle itself in being fixed and then the inconvenience would cease.
But no. The vexation persisted.
Ploc, ploc, ploc and rolling sound.
Five minute of that sufficed for him to attain the point of restive intolerance that leaves direct confrontation as the only way out. So he got out of apartment 224 and took the stairs to the third floor and apartment 324. He walked the outside ramp like corridor that had a view on the canal of salt water in front and over an island of rich houses roof overlooking the gulf a few miles away. The disturbance made him oblivious to that décor, the grass covered ground with clusters of trees surrounded by flowers, the sound of birds and the occasional dolphins one could see gambolling in and out of the water. At the door, he put his fist on its wood surface, banged it three or four times, certainly not in a gentle manner, meaning to make an impression. He could hear on the other side the damn noise that had made him charging to the spot. Instant stillness followed his hitting at 324. The door opened a few inches, got stopped by a chain the like of which there was at his mother’s and that was at his eyes level. However, something was not right. There was nobody there. And then, from below came a small voice and he looked down. He saw the head, the eyes of a boy, those eyes green, round and luminous. The boy had a big black bowl in his left arm, the kind you throw at skittles. He heard the kid saying:
- “Bonjour monsieur.”
- “I,” he answered in proper English. Who were these people who spoke French? And then, he had a flash of that couple, that man and his boy that he had caught sight of walking outside the building a few hours back. Those Middle Eastern types. So they were living up his parents unit. There was not a lot of that kind in Point-Brittany. Strange that nobody never had mentioned them to him. He had asked:
- “Can I talk to your mother or father?”
And the boy had responded:
- “Papa fait sa prière.”
- “What? Can’t you speak English, little boy? What is it you just said?”
Yet, the child persisted and repeated:
- “Papa fait sa prière.”
He made out the word prayer. Yes, that was something at what they were good at those silly Muslim carpet kissers. Still he had said to the boy:
- “I must talk to your father. Go and fetch him, will you.”
The boy let go of the bowl which hit the floor with a bang and then again, there was that most annoying ploc, ploc, ploc while the big plastic ball rebounded on the hard wood floor of the living room. The young one had turned around and he could not see him anymore. However, he reappeared a few seconds later holding a small parcel in his hand. It was a box from Macy’s with a happy birthday card attached to it. That the boy then opened for him and from it, he extracted one compact disc with the big red letters forming the word Khaled and the picture of some solemn looking performer, the probable owner of that name. The boy was now smiling happily, showing the gift and telling him, as if he cared:
- “C’est un cadeau pour papa.”
- “ Where is your papa? »
- “ C’est son anniversaire. »
This was an impasse. He was going nowhere.
Wherever the father hid himself or whatever he was doing at that moment, he would pursue the activity and stay where he was, come what may. Those folks and their foolish salamaleks! Then, the son asked him:
- “You like music?”
It was no time to confess he didn’t. So he muttered:
- “Of course, I do.”
- “Alors, c’est très bien,” approved the other. And there was that smile again that took out some of his frustration, He got a pen out of his shirt pocket, extracted his wallet from his Levis and got a piece of paper on which he wrote a note and passed it on to the child.
- “You give this to your father, will you.”
- “Oui monsieur.”
The kid took it and then left.
That night, there were no more disturbances.
x x x x x
The next morning, at the hospital, day four of his old man’s being there, he found him in somewhat better shape. At least, he was recognising people and was able to talk if in a lethargic kind of way. Whatever, that man would never make it back to his ancient way of living. He and his mother would have to move wherever serious assistance was available. He decided to leave that business to Carol who always knew what to do, who wouldn’t be caught unprepared in all circumstances and who had a plan for everything. Joe felt that she most probably had one for a presidential visit to her house and another for some flying saucer making a landing in her backyard. That same night, he told her about the Africans living upstairs. She knew.
- “Ah, those,” she had said to him.
- “Yes. What about them?”
- “They are no trouble, are they?
He had no time to answer that because she added:
- “Anyway, they won’t be there for long. From what I heard, they came visiting from Algeria. The woman has family in Clearwater. They will be gone and away before the end of the week.
- “Who told you?
- “Allen at the management office at Point-Brittany. They got them a parking pass for ten days.”
He had a look at his aunt, trying not to show that he was impressed. And then, He forgot about the matter. Let these people make back home and pray their ways to Paradise. He left his mother there where she would, hopefully, stay quietly in his father’s room. At ten, he made it back to Point-Brittany. He wasn’t expected at work for another 24 hours and why not enjoy the place and its resort like comfort while he had it all for himself. He parked his car in one of the numerous visitors’ assigned spaces and walked past his parent’s Taurus toward the building’s grand entrance. That’s when he was distracted by a group of foreign looking men and women having an argument near a dark coloured GM Van with all doors on the right side left open. One older woman in a black frock and veil on her head was shouting in a shrilly soprano at his neighbour from condo 324 whilst a younger woman normally dressed, with long black hair floating in the light breeze, cried silently. And then, he saw the kid behind another adult male who held the child’s hand in his and was pulling him to the Van where already sat another black clad woman with her arms extended, waiting to grab the boy and get him inside. Seeing this, the guy from 324 was trying to push his way through the barrage of family he was facing but got stopped short and a melee followed with high cries and vociferations that ceased as soon as the Van started to move with mother and child safely in. Those still there engulfed themselves in a big Chevrolet Impala that departed in a fury before all doors were slammed shot by their mafia like occupants, leaving there, in a pallid yellow spot of light a very distressed and quite alone bearded father.
What was that about? Joe had asked himself. Nothing of his concern, that was for sure. Poor fellow, though. It was kind of hard not to feel a bit for him.
x x x x x
His parents had never got over the death of his sister at 29. At the time, he was 19 and in the Army. He had made it to Viet Nam just in time to flee out in panic. He came back, getting a lot of attention for his flowery language, using words like Gooks, Noggies, Dink, Hutchie, Wog, Coon and Chink more than was necessary and most of the time to see the face of his old man blanch. His parents abhorred the war and Nixon and the Republicans to whom they attributed all responsibility for its existence. Never gave the credit to the impeached President of having terminated it. His folks who had lost their daughter in the prime of life and never recovered from the ordeal. Not that he was there to see the devastation it create; all he knew about the matter came to him through Carol, both his mother and father being mute on that subject. Laura had died of love, it was said. As if one could die of love in a car crash. He had learnt of the calamity over a very long distance phone call in his Major’s headquarters and later, through the mail. He had missed the funerals, being hospitalized at the time and suffering from the fever. Besides, you do not fly 10,000 miles over the death of a sister you have hardly known. She was a teacher and at 26, had met a colleague that professed great love for her. They dated for two years and then announced their engagement at a party that he had also missed, while having no other date at the time. Philip, that was the fellow’s name, gave his sister the ring but not much more and certainly not his name. Didn’t marry Esther, after all. Never much explained why either. He just disappeared at the end of a semester as he was supposed to meet his sister one Friday night and attend to some movie. He never showed up. His poor sibling was never the same after that shock. She was devastated. She was destroyed. She was wasted. Some said that she started dying at that moment. If not for the car accident, she would have been successful by achieving the task all by herself. Death would have come to her that way and well, maybe it did.
He had come back from Viet Nam a changed man. Sore an angry. His take on life, different and yet, not really being aware of it or where lay the variance. He was mad at things is all. He reminisced the man of place his father was and he yearned for his own spot where he would rest, secure and happy but that so called place was more like a mirage that you may discern but never reach. He was searching. It was difficult. Talking with his father didn’t help. He had, after coming back from Asia. Esther gone for a year now. His father made it look so easy finding one’s own place. How come, he Joe, had no way to get there?
His old man was resting in the garden, protected from the sun by the shade of one maple tree that still supported the swing that hanged from its lowest branch. He had sat on it, helped himself for a ride with a spring of his foot. What his father had said then had taken him by surprise, he being not ready to talk about that.
- “She was so unhappy.”
Meaning Esther, no doubt! And he was sobbing, noiselessly. Quite an impossible situation.
Joe didn’t want to go there. He had mixed feelings about his sister. He couldn’t have explained what they were. So he had said nothing. His mother had brought glasses of lemonade. It was the summer of 1974. Ford then President had pardoned Nixon.
- “I wish you would come back home.”
Joe had redressed himself, two feet off the ground and finding it not so easy a task on his unsteady seat. Taking a sip from his drink, his countenance betrayed no understanding of what he was hearing and still, he nodded to his father.
- “Your place is here, with us”, his mother had added.
Again, that word. One thing he knew for sure. His place was not with them.
x x x x x
Now, 25 years had passed and his father, that man of place, looked as if he had lost his own. He had had a stroke and his doctors declined committing themselves with aprognostication of any kind, let alone what limb he would be left with if any. All they cared to do by way of reassurance, those physicians, was mumbling that he was in no danger of immediate death. How he would come back from the experience, they wouldn’t tell. It was now three days that his mother was at Carol’s. She was supposed to make it back to her apartment at Point-Brittanny and Joe who had been hopping from there to his home and back for the last three or four days now was supposed to take her home that night. Tomorrow was Tuesday and he was scheduled to work. In his mother’s kitchen, the phone rang. It was Carol’s voice at the other end:
- “Your mother wants to sleep here tonight.”
- “Well, yes. What will you do. Go home or stay there?”
- “Since I am in the place…”
- “Have you eaten? You want to join us?”
- “It’s O.K. I am fine.”
Twenty miles, the trip. What was she thinking?
- “Your mother is not well. I can’t leave her with you like that when she cried all the time. Oh God. I don’t know what will become of them both.”
- “Why, he had said, they will have to move out.”
- “We lost her this afternoon. Told the nurse she needed washing her hands and she left the third floor. She was found on the second floor basement asking for direction to condo 224.
- “Not much you can do, can you?”
He felt that as a sting directed at him.
- “What is that supposed to mean, he asked her. I can’t have them in that bungalow of mine. You know how small and shitty it is and besides, mother hates the place and always refused to visit.”
- “What’s wrong with you Joe? She had retorted with a trace of annoyance in her otherwise very composed voice. I have said nothing of the sort. Don’t put yourself into a state over nothing. I mean, whatever, they are your parents…”
It was now a quarter past seven. The sun was high in the sky and the sunset was still 90 minutes away. His aunt was babbling non-stop and he was no longer listening. He felt irritated. On edge. An impression that he was expected to do or pronounce words that he didn’t feel doing or pronouncing. He detested that sensation that whatever he would choose to do or say would be judged inadequate at the end. This was a bad feeling. The feeling of someone who had not yet found his place. The feeling of one always in need to look upon others to have an inkling of what was the right thing to do. This was a maddening feeling and invariably, he ended up turning against whoever was responsible at that instant of his reacting that way. Relief came with a knock on the front door. He interrupted her:
- “There is someone at the door. I have to go.”
And then, he cut her off.
x x x x x
At the door which he opened a crack, he recognised the bearded Algerian of condo 324. The one with the boy. The one of the birthday present. The man had the distracted look of a deer when he perceives you with a rifle at the shoulder ready for the kill. Those Viets had had the same look when they knew their time had come. He had seen a few of those. This bearded one had that look. The man forced a smile on his face. “What is it he wants?” Joe remembered thinking. Does this fool want to sell me something?
The door stood half opened and Joe’s body was blocking all view to the inside. At last his neighbour said in broken English with a heavy French accent:
- “I come tell you so sorry for interruption Yesterday.”
And then, he added in French:
- “Ne m’en voulez pas.”
What was that?
- “It’s O.K.”
And then, he started to close the door but the other would have none of it. Not so that the Arab pushed his way in but the desperation Joe sensed in the other’s attitude and posture was enough to make him stop his movement.
- “My son. He tell that you like music, yes?”
- “I left you a note is all.”
- “I give note back to you, now, yes?”
- “You throw it away yourself, will you.”
- “My son is good son.”
There were tears coming in the father’s eyes. This was too much. Then again he heard the disturbing foreign sentence:
- “Ne m’en voulez pas.”
He had had enough. Joe closed the door to the stranger’s face but at the last moment, the tiresome individual interfered with his hand.
- “I have something for you.” he muttered in a trembling narration as if his self possession depended of what would come next.
In this way, through the part of the door still left open, one hand with nails scrupulously clean appeared holding a small brown bag with something in it. Joe took it without saying a word, quite fed up, in fact, with the nonsense. He moved his head toward the overture left for the retiring hand and that was the last image he caught of the man outside. It would stay with him a long time.
x x x x x
The bag, his mother would find it later. It had happened this way. He was called at work by Carol. It was a Tuesday. His mother was at the condo. She was, Carol said, hysterical. Something must have happened but he couldn’t make any sense of his aunt’s mumbling and what, with the noise in the garage when that conversation occurred, he wouldn’t have been able to differentiate a call from his bookie out of one from the tax inspector. Besides, he was ten minutes away. There was no place left in Carol’s voice for discussion and he felt he had to go. It was an emergency. Still he asked:
- “What about the girl from the agency?”
- “Her? That woman has less brain working properly than what your poor sick mother has still left. She can’t cope with this situation. I can’t get anything out of her except absurd vociferations like: “The poolice is everywhere. The poolice is everywhere.”
- “O.K. I am on my way”, he had agreed finally.
As he passed in front of the hospital, he decided to stop and see how his father was doing. It wouldn’t take long and he would be free of the duty later in the day. Why? He would be at his mother’s place soon enough. Also, not getting there pronto at Carol’s whim alleviated the inconvenience. He was in control. The hell with her.
Carol was his mother’s younger and only sister. A long time ago, he had liked her and later, lost interest. She knew her way around. She was at ease with herself and with others. She had found her place in the order of things and what, of that order which she was a part of, he didn’t care so much. Perhaps, that was his problem. Having a dislike for all that was fixed, settled and square. For all those who were established and comfortable in their acts and beliefs. The many who knew it all. Nothing annoyed Joe as much as a human being exhibiting his arrogance in enjoying life and being well contented. Who in his right mind would want a place in a set of people like that?
At the hospital, he saw Tom. What was his son doing there? That son of his who could get on his nerves so much when they were living together. Why would he remember this scene at that time but he did. It was a few years back. They were at his place. The same bungalow he lived in now. His son had crashed there because the mother of his two children had thrown him out of her apartment for one reason or another. It was before she had those kids. An in an out kind of relationship, that of his son and Nathalie. And, as expected, they had made up and now, in late afternoon, the three of them were in the living room, him looking at the day’s newspaper and them looking at some movie on the T.V. set. They had been arguing. It had started like always over nothing. He wanted a glass to pour himself out the Coors Light he had taken from the fridge. But there was not one left and he had shouted:
- “Christ, Tom, what is it with you. Can’t you stop dirtying all those damned glasses? Why, I saw you using three in the last ten minutes and now, I can’t find a clean one for me. You could rinse them out, couldn’t you?”
There was in the kitchen sink and all over the counter piles and piles of dirty dishes plus all the glasses in the house. Nevertheless, he took one that looked clean enough and made it back to the living room. His son was whining tearfully his usual nonsense while the girl chewed gum and moved listlessly the pages of a magazine.
- “Luck, I never had.”
And then, as if he were afraid not to be believed on his word, he had added:
- “No, but it is true, chances to me, nobody ever gave.”
Joe had shrugged his shoulders, thought for himself: it is me he is aiming at. And then, he had let go of a chuckle or perhaps he was just clearing his throat:
- “Who has ever?”
- “Chance, Nathalie had said, is for one to make it for himself.” This girlfriend of his which their last brawl had rendered less lenient.
- “You stupid cow, will you shut the fuck up!”
- “Nice way to talk to a lady,” Joe said just for the form.
- “Why, insisted Tom, I have never been in luck. You know, like getting to the bus stop just when it arrives.
He had looked at his son, a little stunned and vexed by so trivial a demonstration. But then, Tom was not through yet:
Nathalie had said:
- “Who gives a shit about your silly bus stories.”
The other had protested pitifully:
- “Just an example, it was. No, it is a fact. I am unlucky is all. Why? Take that movie we are looking at right now, it was supposed to be Election and what, we are viewing Black Rain. Election, it was yesterday.
- “You got it all wrong.” It was Nathalie again. “This has nothing to do with luck. All you had to do was read the T.V. Guide correctly.”
- “I know that, but a lucky guy would have opened the tube and got the movie he likes. Na! Luck is something I never have had. Like in school. My friends, they were always saying after an exam: I blew it, I blew it. And then, those fortunate ones, when they received their results, well they had passed. That never happened to me. And what about my first car, you remember, Dad? I had to replace the transmission one week after buying it…”
In Joe’s head had rised then, like a pop out on a P.C. screen, that sorry thought: “This son of mine is an idiot.”
What was Tom doing there? He had asked him:
- “You are not at work?”
- “My car broke down and the garage will not let me take it if I do not give them 2312.00$. I have asked grand-pa to loan me the money.”
And on that piece of news, he had left.
In his father’s room, everything was quiet. The old man was sleeping. His wallet had been left opened on the dresser and his Bank of America debit card was nowhere to be seen. With the password, Tom could get into the account if he had the card. He would have to check that out later.
x x x x x
Disgusted with his simpleton of a son, he got in his car and took the 275 South in the direction of Pinellas Bayway and Point-Brittany. At the bridge toll, a leaping negro who hip hopped gaily on his own tune gave him change for his ten dollar bill. One minute later, he was at the gate of building six. He moved to one of the visitor’s assigned parking lot. Two Saint-Pete’s police cars were left running in front of the edifice entrance. Behind these vehicles, a gathering of older residents were looking at the scene in a mode of uncertain passivity. In this wealthy gate community, Constabulary never visited. Pandemonium was when your neighbour won first Monday of the month Bingo super prize.
From far away, Joe heard the pestering clamour of an ambulance approaching. He took the stairs two at a time. On the second floor, a girl, very black and overweight was gesticulating, trancelike, while mumbling constantly as in a mantra: “They never tell me anything.” He passed her, got into unit 224 and there he found his mother sitting on the kitchen floor, by the opened fridge door. He kneeled down to her level. With her eyes fixed on his, she addressed him as if he was his father:
- “What is it, dear?”
That’s when the girl from the agency came back in and the space they were in became suddenly a lot smaller. She was still uttering: “They never tell me anything.” He had enough of such nonsense and so, interrupted her:
- “Will you stay quiet for a moment, please?”
His voice had gotten out like thunder and both the keeper and her protégée freezed silent and motionless. He heard then a knock at the door of the condo. He got up, thinking of a way to close the fridge door, why all those perishables. A male voice was calling:
- “Somebody there?”
So, he had shouted back:
He met a police officer. Both moved outside of hearing, in the outside corridor. The officer of the law told him, then, in confidence:
- “Something has happened on the third floor. The unit just over yours. In 324, that is. You know the folks who lived there?”
- “No, I don’t.”
- “Anyway, when we arrived to investigate what was then described as a disturbance on the third floor of this building, we found your mother inside apartment 324 with the front door of the place left ajar.”
- “She must, he offered, have mistaken her floor and thought she entered unit 224.”
- “As you say. Very unfortunate, though, for what your mom visualised once in there.”
Joe then recalled the bearded man with the eyes of a frightened deer and craved at that instant for the man in uniform to stop talking, not wanting to learn anymore, whishing instead that he could leave, re-enter in his mother’s condo, close the door behind him and not know of the Algerian’s fate.
But that was not to be.
He could hear the murmur of distant traffic moving on Pinellas Bayway. And then, the man’s voice took over:
- “The poor fellow shot himself.”
He felt some constriction in his chest.
- “Through the heart.”
Joe uttered then a weird grunt, was still looking at the policeman and offering nothing else.
- “Must have been already broken, don’t you think?”
- “This is an unusual way to go, though. I wonder if it is one of them custom. I wouldn’t try it for myself. Easy to miss. And then, what?”
- “He had a boy, he said, dejected.”
- “So you knew him, after all.”
- “Not by name. As a matter of fact, I never saw him in that apartment upstairs.”
- “Too bad he didn’t call for help…”
At that, Joe winced.
- “… then, how did you figure out whom I am talking about?”
Joe didn’t want to go into that. Couldn’t face to revisit what had happened the day before so vividly the recollection of it was still in his mind. He said reluctantly:
- “I don’t know. There was this man and his boy I saw yesterday and then, later, some family of his who took the kid away.”
- “So then you assume that it is the same man at 324?”
- “Why, yes…”
- “How come?”
- “I went to that door upstairs to complain about some noise and it was that same boy that I saw there. He then told me that his father was praying or something…”
- “Just to be sure, I will ask you to take a look, will you?”
- “What? You mean, on the deceased?”
- “That guy, his passport says he is an Algerian. His name would be Rissam Malaoui or any other way you can pronounce that yourself. He is the one you saw with the child, the lieutenant will want to know because, what, it shows he must have family around.
- “What about the administration here, Joe asked. They must know who owns the place, don’t you think?”
- “True enough. The property belongs – he interrupted himself to look through some notebook, moving the pages slowly – to Henry Lewiston from Boston. Who most probably must have rented him the unit. After all, this is a vacation place, isn’t it?”
They had walked to apartment 324. The medics were there and a manifold of other officials in suits who were going through the motions of a suicidal-like death, looking busy as he would have himself with the removing of a clutch out of a Taurus. One of these suits approached the newly arrived duo and asked:
- “This here the son’s mother downstairs?”
- “Yes, he is,” answered the constable reverently.
Then, the detective in charge had fixed his gaze into Joe’s eyes.
- “Sorry for your old lady to have seen…” He didn’t say more. Just a little gesture with his hand in the direction of the mess somewhere back. “You want us to get her to the hospital, he offered, see a doctor, I don’t know?”
He dismissed the thought without thinking.
- “No, it’s O.K.”
The constable said then:
- “He has seen the deceased with a boy.”
- “Yes, answered his superior, we know about that kid. The mother is around now. She came in this country with father and son for a visit into her uncle’s family. She then decided to stay. She can. He can’t. Don’t ask me why. That poor fellow had no choice but to go back home. Alone! Must have been quite a surprise. I mean, his family staying here. Probably figured it out that he would never make it back here.”
The constriction into Joe’s chest became more acute. They were now in the way of the medics that were pushing a stretcher on wheels through the front entrance with Ressam Malaoui laying on it, his face uncovered. He had his eyes wide open but the fright was no longer there. In them, there was now only resignation, surrender, loneliness and defeat.
Those eyes that could see no more caught some light and fixed on Joe’s and they were the same eyes that had sent him their desperate supplication the day before when he had closed his door on them. One of the medics had then pulled the cover over the dead man’s face as if it had been some afterthought.
Joe then made it back to his mother’s condo.
x x x x x
Both his mother and the lady from the agency were in the living room listening to one soap opera or another. The fridge door was still open. He didn’t close it. He was feeling awful. He got himself a chair. Couldn’t take an interest in the silly show, one blond bimbo in a bikini outfit on the phone with the President discussing his next week agenda. In his mother’s hand, he gazed at one brown bag she was holding on her knees. He recollected the day before another hand holding the bag through four inches of jour between the hard wood panel and its frame in the wall. Rather pitiful if you stop to think of it. “I have something for you,” the man had said. And now, he was dead. Had shot himself.
Through the heart.
How one was supposed to do that?
He caught the bag with his fingers. It came easily, his mother letting him have it. There was something hard and square in it. He had passed in the dining area.He had put his hand in the bag and came into contact with the object inside. Plastic. Got it out. It was a C.D. with a happy birthday card scotched on it. He read with some difficulty what a boy of six or seven had written in capital letters: BONNE FÊTE À MON PAPA XXX.
“I have something for you,” the man had said to him.
His son’s gift.
That he would no longer need. “Too bad he didn’t call for help,” the police officer had mentioned.
But he had, didn’t it? He had just addressed to the wrong person.
A sob that convulsed him from head to toe bursted then from his chest. He coalesced to the ground, sobbing like he didn’t remember ever having done before. And he was making a lot of noise, too, water rolling down on his cheeks like a cascade, wetting everything around. This had to stop and the more he was trying to, the more he bawled.
While in the living room, nobody cared for his grief and distress except the aid from the agency who, from the couch, muttered for herself: “They never tell me anything.”
Which he didn’t hear anyway.
Later, when the crisis yielded to good sense, he had put the disk in the C.D. player and listened to the song.
Ne m’en voulez pas
Je suis comme ça
Ne m’en voulez pas
Comme ça, c’est moi
Je dis que je viens
Et je ne viens pas
Mais ça ne fait rien
Si je n’y suis pas
Ne m’attendez pas
Je ne viens pas
Je suis fatigué
Oubliez moi *
And he had at that moment this illumination, one sensation that was a first for him, never in the past having felt anything of that irradiating explosive intensity.
People did count. People were worth caring for. And when you did, you might be able to find that place that was yours in this world.
* Please bear with me
This is my way
Please bear with me
This way, it’s me
I say I will come
And I don’t
That doesn’t matter
If I am not there
You wait for me
I am not coming
I am so tired