The Woman in the Silver-Grey Mercedes

The woman was driving a sleek, self-assured, silver-grey, late-model Mercedes convertible. James Connaught could not make out the model number as the car passed by in the HOV lane heading north on I-84 toward Boston or, more likely, Providence. But he could certainly see who the woman was. It was early afternoon on a warm Friday and he was in a seat by the window, mid-way back on the driver’s side of the Bolt-for-a-Buck bus on his way home from New York to Boston. He had travelled into the city for a business meeting.

He knew her. Had seen her last less than three hours earlier. She was still wearing an onyx-black silk blouse she was wearing then, and her hair, closely resembling the same luxurious material, was pinned back with a silver clip at the nape of her neck. Her makeup was flawless. She was Zumba-thin and had an aura of cold, practiced composure. As if she were meditating in a meat locker.

James put down the book he was holding. His pulse quickened. His breathing sped. She was taping her fingers on the steering wheel, her head nodding in time to the sound system that encircled her.

The rage he had felt earlier that afternoon swelled once again within him. Then, she had been sitting across the table from him, in a comfortable room with the door closed, a folder in front of her, which she did not open.

He had asked her, he remembered, “What is going on?” To which the Mercedes woman had said, “You know exactly what is going on. We are letting you go.” And, with not another word more spoken, she left the room, with only a nod to Monica or Musette, the HR person who was there to clean up the mess.

He looked at Ms. HR, his heart plummeting with unanticipated sadness, as if he had just witnessed the death of a loved one, or as if a verdict had been read to him in a dark, Kafkaesque courtroom on an undisclosed charge with an undisclosed sentence. As if they expected him to be silent and to somehow accept that what was happening had been of his own doing, and that they were blameless and without the power to undo it and make it any different, and that he should try to understand their unfortunate and innocently impotent predicament.

As if he would then walk out of the room and down the hall past all of the office doors that were closed tightly, the office doors that were once ‘always open.’ The doors that hid the maleficent conspirators from bearing witness to the trouble they had wrought and with which they bore only a distant and quotidian relationship, tapping their pencils on their desk blotters, waiting impatiently until their temporary but necessary ordeal would be over and they could once again be opened.

And he did as they had planned. He signed the papers that had been placed before him and he walked out of the room and down the hall, stifling an insistent urge to knock on those high-ranking doors and ask for an explanation or better yet, an apology.

He walked to his desk and found a box someone had put there and he filled it with his few belongings, sitting, knowing that everyone knew before he did what was to happen that day, and when they should go out for coffee and a smoke or, if they needed to be at their desks, when not to raise their heads or to glance away from their computer screens, or cough or make any sound at all that would draw his attention to them and risk having to speak to him.

These people, the very same ones who had sat with him in a meeting that morning and who ate cinnamon-raisin bagels with cream cheese and drank Dunkin’ Donuts coffee out of paper cups with him, and had known full well what would transpire later that day and said not a word, nor had given a look of acknowledgement of what would come to pass nor of what bullet, at the end of the day, they will have been spared.

His access to the computer server had been denied. They had made sure, in their premeditated efficiency, that he could not retrieve any of his files. As though he no longer existed to them; as though he had no longer had any value, perhaps never had, except in the generation of billable hours.

He sat on the bus, alone. He felt the urge to vomit. Around him were crumpled Burger King wrappers and pizza-stained napkins on the floor; the grime on the window beside him, left by other men, other women, who had leaned against it leaving their greasy mark as the only evidence that they had once been there. Around him, the odor of the lavatory and the smell of his own acrid sweat like onion breath.

The Mercedes had flown by. James was left with the weight of the future on him and the inescapable, unfathomable, thought of what he would do now, a man just past sixty-two, with a mortgage and bills to pay, and a wife and child waiting at home for him.

The Good Life of Avrum and Chava

Avrum and Chava own a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath home in North Ossining, not far from the maximum-security prison down by the river. They have 2.5 acres, iron gates, their own artesian well, and biodegradable, earth-friendly deer fencing protecting their garden.

Avrum is a retired lawyer and Chava is a former social worker for the department of corrections at Sing Sing, where they first met.

In their fifty years together, they have led cautious, well-organized lives. They are vegans, fermentationists, grow their own fruits and vegetables. They use no plastics. They stopped using aluminum pans and deodorants years ago. They have no cell phones or a microwave. Their home is rid of mold, lead, polyfluorocarbonate aromatics, errant asbestos fibers, and radon.

They look like two well-pressed Dickensian waifs from Bleak House. Each of them is thirty pounds under weight. They consume no more than 800 calories per day and walk eight miles each morning to remain in strict calorie balance.

Their yoga instructor finds them existentially intimidating.

When they turned fifty, each assessing their risks, Avrum had a prophylactic prostatectomy and she a precautionary hysterectomy and full bi-lateral mastectomies.

They are friendly and sociable, literate, kind, careful, and caring people.

One recent evening, they were heading north on the West Side Highway after attending the final performance of the entire Ring Cycle at Lincoln Center when they were sideswiped by a gypsy cab with its lights off and were sent careening into the guard rail. When their front and side airbags deployed, given their light weight and small size, they were instantly crumpled and suffocated.

At the moment of their death, they are surrounded by a halo of warm mauve light.

A reassuringly back-lit vision of a sixty-something woman with neatly trimmed hair, a string of pearls, and a tastefully tailored white pant suit, appears before them.

She speaks slowly in a vaguely mid-western accent, “Don’t be alarmed,” she tells them. “Just try to relax. You’ll be all right. I promise.”

They look at one another, unsure.

“You are not dying or dead. You have been granted a reprieve; a permanent stay of execution so to speak; a lifetime dispensation.”

“Why us?” Chava asks.

“To tell you the truth, we don’t offer this to everyone. You’ve both lived exemplary lives of service, chaste, positive thoughts, and quiet restraint: Model citizens. No felonies. Frankly, just what we are trying to encourage.”

Avrum asks, “Wait, we’re not dead? Isn’t this Heaven?”

“No,” she tells him, “We did away with the heaven idea eons ago. It just wasn’t giving us the kind of results we were looking for. I don’t have to tell you about the present state of affairs: debauchery, gluttony, sloth, tax-fraud, sexual harassment, drones.”

“What if we take this offer, what happens next?”

“Well, nothing changes. Everything stays the same. You just agree to maintain your lifestyle. You stay forever just as you were fifteen minutes ago before the crash. We need folks like you to set an example for other couples.

“Nothing changes? Our bank account?”

“The same.”

“Investments? Health insurance?”

“The same.”

“Same. My God, think of all the books, movies, bar mitzvahs, operas. No pressure to do anything you don’t want to for-ever. You just agree to let us use your names and testimonials in a little subtle internet advertising promoting The Good Life and the launch of our new product line.”

“Think of it. Your home will be free and clear after the mortgage expires. Of course, you’ll need to have the wiring upgraded and the appliances repaired, replace the boiler, the roof when needed, you know the usual maintenance every hundred years or so.”

Sensing their hesitation, she adds, “I know this will work for you. For you both. What do I have to do to make this deal happen?”

Silence.

“Look, not to rush you but if you just put your thumb prints right here, you are free to go. You’ll never see me again.”

Chava and Avrum look at one another. He reaches gently for her hand, “I’m in,” he says, “Let’s take it.”

“Congratulations, Avrum. This is so you!”

“Wait,” Chava says. “What if we decide not to take the offer? I mean, what happens if we say no?”

“Well, no one has ever actually said no before. I guess you just get the usual, you know, one last meal of your choosing and then, well, it’s lights out.”

“A last meal?”

“Yes.”

“Chava, what are you saying?” Avrum whispers.

“Shush! What could we have?”

“Anything!”

“Anything?” Chava, lowers her eyes. “Well,” she says quietly. “Could I have three eggs, scrambled, wet, homefries, and wheat toast, no wait, make that pumpernickle toast, with butter.

Arum looks at her. He is aghast. “Chava, don’t do this!” he implores.

“Is that all?” The woman asks, looking toward Avrum.

Avrum shakes his head, “ Nothing for me.”

“Can I have a side of bacon, too?” Chava says.

“Of course.”

“And a regular coffee, light and sweet?”

“Chava, bacon, yet? Please!”

“Oh, Avrum,” she tells him. “ I’m sorry. I love you. I do. We’ve had a good life. What more could I ask for?”

She looks into Avrum’s warm grey eyes, smoothens her hand against his rough cheek and turns to the woman in white.

 

 

 

An Incident at Camp Bullis, TX, 1949

Margaret Donnelly, the administrator at TenderNest Assisted Living, tells Hector that his mother has not eaten breakfast for going on three days.

Each Saturday morning, Hector makes the drive from Bozeman to Billings to see his mother. Two hours each way, less if the weather is clear; more if there’s snow on I-90. His job keeps him in Bozeman. He works lift maintenance year-round at Big Sky. He calls it ‘Big Money.’ Continue reading An Incident at Camp Bullis, TX, 1949

Summer Solstice

Mid-day, and the sun is high. It seems to pause in the sky. There is little shade in the park. Mackenzie watches the woman cross the street. He knows her. ‘Helen,’ she told him that first time she came to run her dog on the patchy grass of the field by the tennis courts. After she left, he’d repeated her name to himself so he would not forget it. Continue reading Summer Solstice

Mel Williamson’s Holiday Surprise

The idea had come to Williamson so clearly, so well formed, and with such perfect attention to launch detail that it could not possibly fail.

He was in love. Love struck. Smitten. Knee deep in love. Floating on a river of love.

He had first seen Cindy at Sylvia Johnson’s pre-December pre-Christmas party. Sylvia had invited all of her friends at the library and all of her husband’s down at the town Water Department, Office of Cross Connections and Backflows, to her annual holiday gathering. Continue reading Mel Williamson’s Holiday Surprise

The Periodic Table

Revson and I went to a lecture together at the Y on 92nd St. I had suggested it to him and I bought the tickets, as he had recently fallen on hard times.

We took our seats in the front row of the lecture hall. The subject was The Periodic Table, Primo Levi’s memoir as an Auschwitz survivor. And, since Levi had recently been found dead at the bottom of a long stone staircase, under very uncertain circumstances, the room was overflowing with anticipation. Continue reading The Periodic Table

Sally Ann Finkelstein for President

Sally Ann Finkelstein turned sideways to the mirror. She swayed slightly, smoothed her hand gently over her tummy, tucked a curl of silvery hair behind her ear, and checked her teeth for lipstick stains.

She was a pleasant looking woman. Pleasant enough. Though perhaps more in appearance than in manner, given the effect she had on some, though she meant neither insult nor harm. Continue reading Sally Ann Finkelstein for President

The Woman Next Door

Benson was awakened by the sounds of the woman next door leaving for work. It was cold and the rain had turned to wet snow, at least it had at 3 a.m., when he’d gotten up to pee.

Their apartments were close. They shared a thin gypsum-board wall between them. He knew she could hear him during the night as he fumbled for the light in the dark and then flushed the toilet. The intimacy of this embarrassed him though there was nothing else he could do.

Continue reading The Woman Next Door

Milton Silverman’s Last Thought

Milton Silverman’s Last Thought

When Milton sensed the end was near he told Magda he loved her. “Magda, I love you,” he said. And then he asked her to tell Vincenza, their daughter, to turn down the television set. He was adamant that the last thing he would hear would not be an Arby’s ‘We’ve got the meat’ commercial. Continue reading Milton Silverman’s Last Thought