Peaches in Light Syrup
“Not even a photograph. Not one picture of Faye. None of Faye and me in here. Why is that?” Howard asked himself out loud as, for the third time that day, he peered into his empty refrigerator.
Close to three months alone in the dark, frigid apartment. Mr. Sanchez, the super, had banged on the door every day for the past two weeks, asking Howard to open up. He called through the door, saying that Howard was behind in his rent. Howard knew that was true. On two occasions the super had used his key to open the door, but Howard had chained it from the inside, so the man was not able to enter. He called to Howard through the small opening between the door and the jamb to say that unless he received this month’s and last month’s rent by the end of the week he would have to fill out the paperwork to have Howard evicted. When Howard did not answer, Mr. Sanchez called into the apartment, “Just let me know you’re here, Mr. Fox. If I don’t hear you I’m gonna think something bad happened, and I’ll call the police, so answer me.” Howard replied, saying that he did not want to be bothered.
Now, as Howard gazed into the gleaming whiteness of the barren refrigerator, wondering why he did not have any photos of Faye, he remembered that he had to write out a check and give it to the super the next time he banged on the door. Of course, he had thought of that the day before and the day before that and each other day from the time the super first knocked on his door. Did I write out that check? Howard asked himself. That led to more fundamental questions, such as Where is my checkbook? To whom do I write the check? How much is the rent? He thought he remembered how to write a check, but was not sure. For the twentieth time that day, Howard walked to his desk, opened the middle drawer, and stared at the checkbook. Then he closed the drawer and sat on the sofa. When hunger pangs returned a couple of minutes later, Howard held his abdomen. Then he shuffled to the refrigerator and stared into it, again wondering why there were no photos of Faye.
As he stood there, alternately rubbing his shrunken middle and pulling at his beard, Howard realized that he had to buy food. He knew that. He had known it the day before, when all he had left in the apartment was a can of sliced peaches in light syrup, which he ate for breakfast, leaving nothing for lunch or dinner. He knew that he was out of food and soap … and hope.
And ... there were no pictures of Faye.
He returned to the desk, pulled out a pen and a sheet of paper and, after thinking for a full minute, began to write. He stopped and thought about opening one of the shades so that he would be able to see more clearly, but that seemed to involve too much effort; besides, doing that might interfere with what he was trying to accomplish by way of his complete isolation. Even though he could not call it to mind at that moment, he was sure that once had had eaten, he would be able to remember why he had entombed himself in his apartment.
After he had written soap, shampoo, lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, he stood up and returned to the empty refrigerator. Shaking his head, he returned to the desk, and wrote Captain Ahab, Gulliver, Don Quixote, Miss Havisham, Humbert Humbert, and then he pulled on his beard again, scratched his head, closed his eyes and tried to think of ... Faye. That’s right—Faye.
During the past two weeks, no matter how deeply he had reflected, regardless of how much effort he applied to concentrating, he had not been able to return to Faye and that time for even one minute. Every so often, he had not been able picture her face or remember any of their life together. At other moments, he was able to see her clearly and remember entire blissful days with her. At still other times, he thought of almost nothing else. But he had not been able to spend any time with her or even have a satisfying dream about her.
Stuck in the present. Damned 2019—ugly, lonely year; revolting life. I’m very hungry. That must be it. I have to eat.
Looking intently at the list, Howard tried to think of the phone number of the grocery store. He searched his desk, but could not find the receipt that the man had given to him with that food delivery almost three months ago. He picked up the telephone to call Directory Assistance, but the line was dead. Then he remembered that he had unplugged the table phone at the beginning of his confinement. After plugging it in, he picked up the receiver. It was still dead. He tapped the buttons on the phone, but nothing happened. That tapping reminded Howard of movies he had seen during his time with Faye. That plot sequence seemed to come up in movies all of the time. A character, typically a woman, alone in her house late at night, tries to call the police, but the line is dead. She taps on the buttons over and over again and calls, “Operator! Operator!”
Then, with a sinking feeling, Howard realized that he had not paid his telephone bill or, for that matter, any of his bills in the months he had lived this dark, solitary existence in his apartment. Computer? He had left his laptop at the store. No cell phone. He had never wanted one. Who would he call anyway? In all the years he had lived in the apartment he had rarely used his land line.
He had known from the beginning of his confinement that he would not be able to pay any of his bills, but he had thought that would be fine; after all, he had been sure that he would be back with Faye in their old life where he would be happy and working and taking care of his bills. He walked to the kitchen and looked into the refrigerator, surprised to see that the interior light was on, thinking, I guess the electric company hasn’t shut me off yet. Shut ... cut. My store! It’s been closed all of this time. I haven’t paid the rent on it or the utility bills for it for however long it’s been. This was not the first time he had remembered that. What am I going to do? Faye, what should I do?
He took his wallet from his desk, picked up his keys, and walked out of the apartment. As he stood in the hallway he tried to remember which key to use to lock the door. He was lost at sea, not the blue blue sea, but a churning body of water that was icy cold and filled with strange odors and sounds. He realized that something else was wrong, but was not sure what. A familiar-looking key fit in the lock, so he turned it and pulled it out, only to drop the entire bunch. As he looked down he saw that he was barefoot. He picked up the keys and tried key after key until he found the one that fit. He unlocked the door; then he was unable to pull it out of the lock. He pulled and twisted and pulled and turned until the key broke off in the lock. He walked back inside, closed the door, turned the latch, and put the chain back on. Then he sat on the couch. A minute later, he doubled over in pain. I’m hungry, he thought. He remembered that the telephone was not working and he knew he had to put on socks and shoes. As he was doing that, he sniffed, realizing that he was wearing only a smelly, dirty tee shirt and undershorts, so he dressed. He pulled at his thick beard and scratched his scalp, trying to remember when he had last shaved or showered or combed his hair. After checking the refrigerator one more time, he walked out of his apartment. Since the broken key was in the mechanism, he had to leave the door unlocked. He walked to the staircase.
As Howard passed the wall of shiny steel mailboxes in the lobby of the building he looked with only mild interest at the pile of letters and packages on the floor. He assumed that at least some were his, but he did not stop to examine them. On the sidewalk, despite the sunshine, which temporarily blinded him, the air was shockingly cold; icy breezes and painful gusts bit into his face and blew up his shirt. Howard had not thought of wearing a jacket. He did not know the date, but assumed it was sometime in winter. He held his arms close to his body and walked to the bookstore. There was a scattering of broken bottles and a pile of paper bags, food wrappers, and other garbage in front of the door. He tried to remember whether he had ordered any books before he began his period of isolation. If he had, he hoped the delivery person had taken the boxes back to the shipping facility. He brought his face up to the windows and peered inside; he saw that the store was dark and empty. He looked down, thinking that he would have to take away the garbage when he opened the store. When will that be? Where will that be? He pulled the keys from his pocket, but could not remember which one opened the door. No matter; first, he had to buy food and eat.
A short distance into the supermarket a burly man in a suit and tie moved in front of Howard, smiled at him, and asked, “Are you here to purchase food, sir?” Howard, feeling cold and confused, remained mute and attempted to walk around the man. As the man lightly grasped one of Howard’s shoulders, he replied, “No. Not just food. I need soap and shampoo and other non-food items.” When the man asked Howard whether he had any money, Howard said, “Yes, but not for you.” The man smiled and let go of Howard’s shoulder.
Howard walked along the aisles, pushing a shopping cart and looking at his list, becoming increasingly bewildered and agitated. He picked items from the shelves, compared them to what he had written on the list, and then put them back. He knew why he was in the store, but was not sure why he had written some of the items on the list. He was especially confused by Miss Havisham. He knew why she encouraged Estella to act in that spiteful manner to Pip, but he had always felt it was wrong. Of course, she had been wronged, and on her wedding day. Why do people get married? What is the rationale? Of course, among people in the earliest civilizations and in certain countries even today it is for economic reasons. It is to protect a woman and her children, but why do people still do it in modernized countries? Then he resumed his journey down the aisles, taking packages and cans from the shelves and putting them back.
A few minutes later, as Howard walked to the exit, the security guard gave him the once-over and said, “So, I guess you really don’t have any money to purchase food.” Howard instinctively tapped a rear pocket; then he pulled out his wallet, opened it, and counted his cash out loud. Then, holding it up for the security guard to see, he announced, “I have exactly one hundred twenty-seven dollars.”
“And that’s your wallet?”
“Yes. It is.”
“I don’t suppose you’d let me see a photo I.D.”
“Driver’s license or something else with your picture on it.”
“I don’t drive, but wait. I have this,” Howard said, pulling out his old Columbia University identification card.
“That’s not you, buddy,” the guard said. “Please come with me.”
“Why?” Howard asked as the man led him to the back of the store.
Howard sat in a back room of the supermarket drinking a cup of hot tea that the security guard had poured for him and eating cookie after cookie from an open package of Vienna Fingers that he had found on a nearby countertop.
When the guard, who introduced himself as Mr. Curley, returned to the room a few minutes later with two police officers, he said, “Looks like you were hungry,” to which Howard replied, “Yes. I haven’t eaten today. I don’t usually eat cookies, but these are good.” Mr. Curley looked sadly at Howard. Then he patted one of Howard’s shoulders and said, “Look—it’s not personal; I just had to call the cops.”
As he bit into the last cookie, Howard looked up at Mr. Curley and nodded as if he understood. Then, as the two police officers and Mr. Curley talked about which types of cookies were their favorites, Howard stood up, threw away the empty package and cardboard cup, thanked Mr. Curley for the food, and walked to the door of the little room.
“Hold on there, sir,” said one of the police officers, who was larger and older looking than the other one. “We have to discuss something very important with you. Please sit down.” They asked Howard for permission to examine his wallet. Although he assumed they actually were police officers, he was not sure, so he said, “I’ll show you my wallet if you show me yours.”
The smaller, younger police officer laughed, but stopped when his partner gave him a long, hard look. Then they both pointed to their name tags and badge numbers, telling Howard he was free to write down that information, if he wanted. Howard said that was not necessary. Then the police officer said, “I will ask you again: Will you please allow me to look in your wallet?”
Howard shrugged and then handed his wallet to the police officer, saying, “It contains one hundred twenty-seven dollars.”
After checking through the wallet, the older police officer handed it to the younger one and asked Howard, “Whose wallet is this?”
“And what’s your name?”
“Howard Roark Fox.”
“Would you please spell that?”
“The name you just said.”
“Just make it easy on all of us, and spell it.”
Howard spelled his name.
“What’s your address?”
Howard gave his address.
“That’s not what it says on this college I.D. card.”
“Oh. That’s my old address. I used to live in Brooklyn.”
“What’s that address?”
Howard gave that address to the police officer. The younger one, who was still looking through the wallet, asked, “Why don’t you have a current driver’s license or a photo I.D.?”
“I don’t drive and I’ve never needed one of those.”
“What about when you fly?”
“I have never flown.”
“Is there anyone who can confirm your identity?”
Howard thought for a long time, but could not think of anyone. No one. Not one soul in the entire world could identify him. Then, beginning to sob, he said, “Faye Berenson, but I don’t know where she lives in this plane of existence. I have been trying to find her.”
The two police officers and Mr. Curley exchanged knowing looks. Then the older one said, “You see, there’s a problem.”
Howard looked at him blankly.
“The problem is this: we don’t know whether or not this is your wallet. Is it? Or did you find it somewhere?”
“It’s my wallet. I bought it in ... let me think. I bought it in Macy’s around Christmas in 1990. I remember because the first Gulf War was going on or was about to begin.”
“What about your address? Your apartment—do you have a key for it?”
“I do,” Howard said, holding up the bunch of keys.
“Okay, let’s go there now. Okay?”
“I don’t have any food.”
“That’s okay. We don’t plan on staying for a meal. Just take us to your apartment so we can straighten this out.”
“I don’t understand why I have to do that. I’ve lived in this neighborhood ever since ... oh, right, since 1992. Before that, I commuted to Brooklyn because my bookstore is here. Before that, I attended Columbia. Then I moved into the apartment with Faye. It was her apartment before I moved in with her.”
“This is the Faye who doesn’t live in this plane of existence?”
“Doesn’t? I hope she lives in this plane of existence. She moved out of the apartment because I said the wrong thing. Peter may be dead.”
The police officers, who had begun to escort Howard from the room, stopped walking and looked at Howard. The older one asked, “Who’s Peter?”
“He is, or was Faye’s brother.”
“What did you do to him?”
“I said the wrong thing. He ran out; never came back. Faye never forgave me. She thought he was dead. I didn’t understand at the time how to speak to people. It’s just the way I am.”
“Did you hurt Peter?”
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I suppose I did.”
“Did you kill him?”
“If he’s dead, then maybe.”
“You don’t know whether or not you killed him?”
“No. I did not know how to act.”
“Please answer the question: Did you kill Peter?”
“Well,” said Howard after closing his eyes and thinking for a moment, “Richard Swinburne believed that if a person fails to act when he or she should, that person is responsible for whatever happens as a result of not acting, so I suppose the opposite is true. What I said may have killed Peter.”
The two police officers shook their heads and asked Howard to take them to his apartment. On the way there, when the younger officer asked Howard where he had been sleeping, he replied, “In my apartment, of course. I think I may be evicted, but I could always sleep in my store ... unless I’m evicted from it too. It’s a couple of blocks from here.”
A few minutes later, when the police officers saw that the door to the apartment was ajar, the older one asked, “Who’s in there, Howard?”
“No one. I’ve lived there alone since 1995.”
The older officer told the younger one to keep Howard outside, and then he drew his pistol and knocked on the door. When no one answered, he pushed it open. After waiting for a few seconds and listening intently, he cautiously entered the apartment. Standing in the foyer, he looked and listened. He stepped out to the hallway and whispered to the younger officer that he should stand in the doorway and watch for movement in the apartment, and then he added, “Don’t let this guy out of your sight.” He walked into the apartment and checked all of the rooms, returning a minute later, saying, “Clear. Nobody there.”
They ushered Howard into the apartment and asked him to show them a photograph of himself. After thinking for a moment, Howard returned with his copy of the 1985 edition of The Columbian. He turned to the page displaying his photograph and pointed to it.
“This is from almost 35 years ago. It kind of looks like you. Hard to tell with that bushy beard you got now. Do you have any recent ones?”
As Howard ran his fingers through his beard he again wondered why he did not have any photos of himself with Faye. He considered explaining to these men why he had not shaved or bathed or left his apartment for months, but decided they would not understand. Then he told them that he did not have any food in the house and he was hungry. The older officer asked Howard to explain what he meant when he had said that Peter might be dead. After Howard gave a long, rambling, convoluted answer, the police officer said, “Make this easy. Just tell us whether or not you killed him. We have to follow up on that statement you made.”
“Oh. I see. No. As I just said, I was impatient with Peter, and he got angry and then he ran out of the apartment. I did not actually hurt him or kill him. That was 24 years ago. That was what caused Faye to leave me.”
“Maybe it’s time to get over her. I think the statute of limitations for a broken heart is something like a year.”
Howard said, “I guess that’s true for normal people.”
The older officer suggested Howard pull himself together and then return to the supermarket. Then the younger one asked, “Are you presently on any medications?”
Howard said that he was not, at which point the younger officer said that he might want to consider seeing a physician and, perhaps, a psychiatrist, at which point, Howard told them about Dr. LeMane. The officer patted Howard on the shoulder and returned the wallet to him.
After the police officers left, Howard sat on his sofa and thought about what they meant by pulling himself together. He tried to ignore a wave of stomach cramps caused by the cookies that he had wolfed down, but then he doubled over in pain. He tightened his muscles and ran to the bathroom. Later, he sat at his desk and wrote a new grocery list, this time resisting the urge to include the names of famous literary characters. He sobbed as he realized that he was no closer to Faye and his real life with her than he had been when he first locked himself in his apartment. Even so, he felt better. The sunlight was good. So were the cookies, but too much at once. I need real food so that I can think, so I can plan. He forced himself to shower, shave, and put on clean clothes. Then he returned to the supermarket, this time wearing a jacket.
Later, after he had eaten some fruit, Howard lay on his bed, attempting to come to terms with the fact that, for whatever reason, he was no longer able to be with Faye, even for a moment. According to Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities, he was always with her, but he did not feel it. It’s because my hold on this venue, this plane of existence is too tight; that’s why I can’t break free. Once more, he tried to think of how he could loosen his seemingly unyielding link to this life. He remembered parts of his last conversations with Faye before she left. At one point, she had asked, “Why do people do these things to each other? Why do they have to hurt each other and make each other miserable?”
“I can tell you what I have read, but I imagine you do not want an academic answer,” Howard replied.
“No, Howard. I want you to tell me why you think people hurt each other. I mean, what’s the point of loving someone, if that person is going to hurt you?”
“If you mean me, I told you: I did not mean to hurt you or Peter. I just always ... how can I put it? I do what I have to do in a way that is best for me.”
“Even if it hurts people? Even if it hurts me?”
“I do what I have to do for my survival. It’s a reflex. I have come to understand that I don’t always see past my own needs.”
“At least you know that now. I guess that’s a sign of growth, but it’s not enough. Keep that in mind tonight, after I leave, and every other night and day, although I’m sure you’ll be fine on your own.”
“I don’t want you to leave, Faye.”
“I know, Howard, and I don’t want to, but when I look at you or think about you my heart hurts. I bleed. I miss Peter so much and I worry so much about him. It’s my fault and it’s your fault. We both let him down. He’s dead.”
“You have no reason to think that.”
“I can’t help but believe he’s lying dead somewhere. Maybe he took his own life in some place where no one will find his body.”
“You have no reason to think that’s the case.”
“I do. He’s depressed, without a job, and the last time we saw him, he was very angry. My mom and dad saw him disgustingly drunk. I’ve called everybody. No one has any idea where he is.”
As he looked at her, Howard knew that Faye was right. He also knew that an important part of his life was crumbling to dust. He wondered how he would feel once Faye had left. Closing his eyes, he imagined himself a book from which pages had been ripped. Howard always held onto those books, never having the heart to discard them. As Faye walked to the door, she stopped, turned around, and said that she would return the next day with her father to help her pack her clothes. Then she added, “You can have the apartment. I’ll be in Queens, with my folks. They’re a mess. They need me. Please don’t go there and please don’t call me. If you have to call, then wait at least a week.”
One evening exactly one week later, Howard called Faye’s parents’ phone number. Mr. Berenson answered the phone. Rather than returning Howard’s feeble greeting, he put the phone down and called his daughter.
“Hello. How are you?”
“I’ve been better. How are you?”
“I ... I wish you were here. I’m lonely.”
“You’ll get over it. You’ll go back to your old life.”
“What if I can’t?”
After a long silence, Faye said, “You know, the correct thing to ask is whether we’ve heard from Peter.”
“You’re right. Have you heard from Peter?”
“No. I guess you saw I took my clothes and personal items from the apartment while you were at work.”
“Actually, you left a few things.”
“I took what I wanted and I left behind what I no longer want.”
“I know,” Howard replied in a mournful voice.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t be mean to you.”
“I understand the depth of your grief and I know you blame me—”
“It’s okay, Howard. I have to go.”
“When do you think you’ll be back?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Faye said, “You know I won’t be going back. It’s over, Howard. Sorry.”
“We should have gotten married. That was another foolish mistake I made. I just did not understand.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered. I still would have left, and then we would have had to deal with lawyers and all that other nasty stuff.”
“I’ll call you again, Faye, that is, if you don’t mind.”
“You may call, but only to talk, and please no more than once a week, and not when I’m at work.” And then she hung up.
Howard spoke to Faye on the phone once a week for the next few months. During one call, he told her that Ellen had called, asking to speak with Peter. Howard said he had told her that he did not know where Peter was and that she should call Faye in the evening at her parents’ home. Faye said that she had spoken to Ellen and had told her that Peter had disappeared. “She wanted to talk to him about going for what she called ‘an amicable divorce,’” Faye explained. “I was steaming. I wanted to tell her that she had ruined Peter’s life, but I didn’t. That wouldn’t have been fair. I’m sure Peter caused at least half the problems, and who am I to point fingers? You and I were not able to keep our relationship going either. Things happen.”
Howard closed the bookstore early one afternoon and walked to Faye’s office at Columbia University. She spoke to him for a couple of minutes from behind her desk. She refused to agree to meet him after work and then she asked him not to visit her there again.
On their last phone call, Faye told Howard that she and her parents were moving, but she would not tell him where. She also informed him that she had left her job at Columbia. Her old life was over and she and her parents were going to start a new one. She would not tell him anything else.
He repeatedly attempted to locate her. Now, 24 years after Faye had left, Howard lay in bed and patted her pillow. He put his hands to his face to pull at his beard, but it was gone. Then he remembered that he had shaved. He got out of bed and sat on his sofa for a long time. Although his head hurt and he was still a bit confused, he felt stronger, now that he had eaten. His brain was clear enough for him to realize that it was time to end his isolation and attempt to go on with his life, such as it was. He cried, not because he missed Faye; he did, but now he cried as one cries for a loved one who has died. He understood that he had to think of Faye in that way—as a loved one who was gone forever.
An hour later, when Howard knew he had no more tears—for that day, at least—he brushed his teeth and washed his face and then collapsed onto his bed. He turned to look at the pillow that Faye had used, but he did not pat it. He turned away from it and closed his eyes. The usual thoughts, the recollections of hours and days with Faye, were there, but he resisted them. In their place, he brought to mind books, characters, scenes, the lives of authors. He decided to list all of the novels written by Charles Dickens in terms of the order in which they had been published: Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, stopping at The Old Curiosity Shop and thinking of Nell, who dies while she is still a child. That led him to think about Faye again. Is she dead?
After a few minutes he got out of bed and paced, first in his bedroom, and then up and down the length of his living room. He decided that he wanted peace, closure, a chance to live his life, this life, without incessant pain and continuous regret, as he had for years after Faye had left—until the period after that fateful Tuesday in September of 2001. He did not know whether that was possible, but he felt he had to try. He returned to bed, and then, for the first time in almost three months he set his alarm clock. He closed his eyes and tried to think about what he had to do tomorrow.