Walking Through Puddles
Faye was always so much smarter than he was, in fact, breezily smart, and so pretty and so lively. She was everyone’s favorite. That was just fine with Peter because he adored his baby sister and never minded that when they were in the same room she always glowed like summer sunshine, while he was the cloud that darkened everyone’s day. Of course, his mother and father, when they were not telling him to “act like a decent human being,” always said that they loved him too. They encouraged him and told him that he had it in him to be a good boy, but he knew that he was defective.
From the second his mother came into the house holding the tiny dark-haired beauty wrapped in a delicate pink blanket, Peter, ten at the time, was in love with her. He reached out and demanded to be allowed to hold the baby. “Go wash your hands first,” his mother instructed. When he had done that, she told him to sit all the way back on the living room sofa; then she carefully placed the infant in his arms and watched him, repeatedly telling him not to move or attempt to stand. Even though his parents reminded him that the infant’s name was Faye, for years he called her Babe. She was his baby.
Even through his high school years Peter always made sure he had time for his sister, playing with her, taking her places, and listening to her chatter about her worries, fears, and hopes for the future. At an age—he was 17 and she was seven—when most brothers and sisters are worlds apart, Faye and Peter were best friends and confidants. She was his anchor and he was hers.
Within six months of his high school graduation in 1970 Peter was called up to serve; he placidly accepted the fact that he would almost certainly be sent to the meat grinder that was Vietnam. His parents, who had tried to convince him to apply to colleges, even if only to attain a student deferment, were devastated when his call-up notice arrived in the mail. When Faye heard the news she retreated to her bed, threw the covers over her head, and cried for hours. Surprisingly, Peter, who was aimless and unemployed, having started and then walked away from two full-time jobs since graduating from high school, was relieved when he read the letter. Although he did not want to go to war he desperately needed to get away from his parents and from Queens and have a chance to see something of the world, even if it was only the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. He did not want to leave Faye, but he knew that being drafted was better than being arrested and serving time in jail. He considered himself lucky that he had not being caught by the police on two occasions recently—once, when he and some friends, after engaging in an all-night drinking party, smashed several store windows on their way home in the early morning hours, and another time when, for reasons he could not explain, he had jumped into and drove off in a red Corvette convertible whose owner had left the keys in the ignition. He had crazily peeled out from the curb and then recklessly screeched along busy city streets for 20 minutes until, believing he heard police sirens in the distance, he screeched to a stop in front of an empty lot. He put the car in park, turned off the ignition, and, leaving the keys in the car, jogged to a bus idling at a nearby curb.
On the day he left for boot camp his father’s advice to him was “Follow the rules and don’t volunteer.” Faye, with red eyes and a blistering headache, said, “Please come home. I’m gonna miss you something awful.”
Since he had been assigned to the Quartermaster Corps in Saigon, most of his tour of duty was uneventful and safe. While other young men his age were killing and being killed, Peter spent his working days in a warehouse and his off-duty hours in bars and brothels. However, just a few months before the end of his deployment he received orders to join an infantry company at a forward base in Khe Sanh, near the border of Laos. He was sure it was a clerical error, but his appeals were ignored. During the harrowing copter ride to his new post his stomach churned and acid shot into his throat.
When Peter reported for duty his new sergeant told him and two others, “Three things: One, always strike first and don’t stop until somebody or something hits the ground; two, never regret what you hit; and three, when you’re walking in the bush and you see a puddle, never walk around it. They always booby-trap the perimeter of low spots where rainwater collects. Walk right through puddles every time.”
Peter was part of a two-man mortar team. Day after day, he and his partner, Luis Garcia from Fresno, California, aimed, loaded, and fired their 81mm M1 mortar into the jungle, never knowing what their rounds were hitting. One afternoon, right after they received word to cease fire, Luis grabbed his M16 and aimed at a spot in the undergrowth a couple of hundred yards ahead. Peter shouldered his weapon and aimed at the same spot, asking Luis what he saw. “Movement, low rustling in those leaves,” Luis replied. Then Luis whispered frantically, “God, I’m jammed! Somebody’s there—he’s taking aim at us. Fire your weapon!” Peter fired over and over until he saw a form fall from the undergrowth and onto the clearing in front. He heard cat-like cries. Then all was silent. Luis moaned, “Oh.” Peter’s stomach tightened. A few seconds later, a mongrel dog pushed its way out of the brush and approached the body, sniffing and nuzzling it. Luis told Peter to stay back, but Peter, propelled by an unstoppable force, stood up and ran to the prostrate body. He looked down at her, unable to turn away, as the bloody spot on her tiny tee shirt spread like a slowly-blossoming flower, eventually obscuring the words Mickey Mouse Club.
Peter repeatedly pushed recollections of that appalling incident and of other horrendous days from his memory and, after drinking himself blind as often as he was able, told himself, I did what I was trained to do and what I had to do to survive, and nothing else matters.
Months later, Faye, a wide smile on her tear-stained face, greeted her older brother at the airport with hugs and kisses and then made him swear that he would not reenlist. His mother hugged and kissed him too, and said, “Your room is just the way you left it.” His father asked what lessons he had learned that he might be able to apply to his life. After thinking for a second, Peter replied, “I learned I can handle a helluva lot more booze than I thought I could,” at which point, his father angrily shook his head and did not speak to his son the rest of the way home.
During the next few years, as Faye, always an exceptional student, completed high school and college, landed a human resources job at Columbia University, and eventually moved to Manhattan, Peter lived at home in his boyhood room, occasionally enrolling in classes at Queensborough Community College—generally dropping out before the end of the term—and working at a series of dead-end jobs. He ignored his parents’ almost daily reminders that many of his friends had earned college degrees and held prestigious positions and all of the others, at the very least, held steady jobs; with tight-lipped smiles on their faces, they added that many of them had gotten married and had children of their own. Although Peter desperately wanted to move out of the old house, he never worked long enough or saved enough money to do so. He was not interested in taking a vocational course to learn a trade and he certainly was not going to attend college full time.
Only on the nights when Peter fell into bed blindingly intoxicated was he able to sleep more than five hours and only on those nights was he free from recurring nightmares and cold sweats. Most days, whether or not he was employed at the time, he looked forward to the evening, when he would take a stool at a local bar, where he would run a tab that he only occasionally managed to pay off. He dated a number of women, slept with a few of them, but never formed any lasting relationships.
Although he still loved his sister he rarely saw her. She was busy during the day and he was usually drinking or drunk at night and on weekends, when she was off from work. He repeatedly promised that he would spend a weekend with her in the city, but he never did. He was in awe of her accomplishments and independence and deeply ashamed of his own lack of success in life. When Faye visited her parents in Queens Peter was always happy to see her. They would talk for a few minutes, and then, suddenly feeling uncomfortable, he would say that he had to meet friends. After he had walked out the door, Faye and her parents smiled sadly at each other.
One evening, as Peter and Vinnie, one of the few from the old gang who had not gotten married, were throwing back drinks they began trying to guess how much cash Old Man Callaghan took in each night. Vinnie said, “On beer alone it’s gotta be three thousand. It would take me a month to earn that where I work. I sure wish I had a couple of thousand to buy a pickup truck and new tools and then work as a handyman; plenty of money in that.” Peter nodded and said, “All in all, it has to be seven, eight thousand for the night.” They watched as, toward the end of the night, the head bartender pulled wads of bills from the cash registers and placed them into a green zippered bank bag that the owner of the establishment took to the back room.
As Peter and Vinnie staggered out to the sidewalk at closing time, dead broke, they both knew, without having to exchange a word, what they were going to do. A short time later, using a baseball bat that Vinnie kept in his car for protection, Peter clubbed Callaghan as he unlocked his car. Once the man had fallen heavily to the sidewalk, Peter grabbed the green bag and ran to Vinnie’s car.
If Vinnie had been sober and in control he would have driven slowly. Since their victim had not seen who had hit him and since no one else had been around, there were no witnesses. In fact, it was not until an early morning dog walker spotted Callaghan, lying on an icy puddle in a low spot in the sidewalk. Although the police assumed that he had been robbed, they did not know for sure. What they did know was that he had an ugly bloody gash at the back of his head. The medical examiner ruled that Callaghan had suffered a devastating concussion and subsequent heart attack and had probably died within a few minutes of the attack. A small article about the incident appeared in each of the New York papers the next day.
Vinnie’s fast, reckless driving eventually caught the attention of two police officers in a patrol car, and they immediately gave chase. Since this was in Whitestone, a distant neighborhood from the scene of the robbery, Jamaica, and since the crime had not yet been reported and would not be for hours, the police officers assumed they had just one more Saturday night DUI stop. One of the cops, Richie Devlin, knew Vinnie and Peter from high school. As Peter watched Vinnie walk a line in the street, he pulled out and folded a wad of twenties from the green bag, which he then returned to its hiding spot under his seat. A short while later, Officer Devlin and his partner, a man named Fantino, walked Vinnie back to the car and told him to sit in the passenger seat. Peter slid over to the driver’s side. Then Devlin, talking through an open window, said, “You know, Vinnie, I gotta write you up. I don’t wanna see you lose your license and have to pay a big fine. This freakin’ city takes in so damned much money, but what good does it do guys like you and me?”
Before Vinnie could reply, Peter said, “Richie, if anybody should be collecting money from a fine it should be you and your partner here.”
Devlin said, “Yeah. That’s right. But how’s that gonna happen?”
Without saying another word, Peter slipped his left hand, with the folded bills in it, out the window. As he looked straight ahead, he felt the money being taken from him. After Devlin and his partner had returned to their car and sped off, Peter, who was only a bit tipsy at that point, drove Vinnie home.
Vinnie called Peter the next evening after work and asked whether he had seen any of the newspaper articles about what had happened to Callaghan. When Peter said he had just gotten out of bed, Vinnie said, “You know, Callaghan, the guy that owns that bar we used to go to. Anyways, he got clubbed. The paper says maybe it was a robbery. In any case, he’s dead.”
Peter winced and then shuddered as he thought about how he had swung the baseball bat. Holding the phone to his ear, he remembered the clunk sound and he felt the vibration in his arms. Then he remembered what he had been taught: “Always strike first until somebody or something falls” and “never regret what you hit,” and so he said, “Too bad. He was a nice guy. Where do you want to go for drinks tonight?”
The bag had contained a bit over seven thousand dollars. Vinnie used his half of the money for a down payment on a used pickup truck and an assortment of power tools. Peter spent his on clothing, including a finely tailored black suit and some expensive shirts and ties. The rest he used to pay his overdue bar tabs and then to splurge at a number of neighborhood watering holes. One night, when Peter was unable to find anyone to go out with him he decided to drop by Faye’s apartment for a surprise, long-overdue visit. As he exited the subway at the Times Square Station, rather than transferring to the train to Morningside Heights, he walked up to the sidewalk and stopped at a bar called Swinging Jimmy’s Corner, thinking that a couple of drinks would help him to relax be more sociable than he felt.
He spotted the woman as soon as he walked in. She was slim, blonde, pretty, but not exceptionally so. However, she radiated intensely sexual pheromone-like signals. When she smiled he walked over and sat next to her. Peter understood the meaning of her smile and her body language. Several martinis later, he was happily buzzed and she was looped, barely able to walk, let alone make it to back to her apartment. When she said she lived in Morningside Heights—but did not provide her address—Peter figured he should make sure she got home safely, and, even though he was tired, he might just indulge in a romp in bed with her, which is what she had been hinting at for the past two hours. He could always visit his sister another time.
Peter told the taxi driver to head uptown, and as the woman dozed he rummaged through her pocketbook, where he found an overdue notice from the phone company. He read off the woman’s address to the driver, and then he sat back. When the cab stopped in front of the woman’s building Peter shook her. She awoke with a silly smile and he helped her out of the cab. On the sidewalk, when he asked which apartment was hers, she whispered in hoarse, seductive tones, “Three B ... that’s me.”
As Peter brought her into the apartment, past a creepy-looking man lurking in the hallway, he felt good that he was protecting this woman whose name he had forgotten. At this point, he was even more tired than before and definitely not in the mood for lovemaking. He just helped her off with her dress, pulled off her shoes, and plopped her on her bed. Then, thinking about how he felt during the times when he was this drunk, he washed her face with a damp cloth and dribbled some water into her slack mouth. Because he was sure that, after all of those martinis, she probably needed to use the toilet but would not be able to make it there on her own, he walked her to the bathroom and stood near her as she urinated. She looked up at him and smiled sweetly. As he led the woman back to bed the feel of her soft, bare flesh and the image of her lovely smile brought Peter to life, so he spent a minute in the bathroom relieving himself, washing his hands and face, and gargling with mouthwash. Then he joined her in bed.
As intoxicated as he was, Peter knew he was taking advantage of the woman and should wait until she had sobered up, but she had made it clear from the beginning that she was available and interested in him. As he kissed and caressed her, he became even more aroused. Although she resisted a bit, she did not actually say no. Yes, in the middle of the night she seemed to want him to stop, but that only further aroused him. He told himself it was not rape. No. She had made clear what she wanted and, after all, he had paid for her drinks and the taxi and had protected her from that man hanging out in the hallway. Besides, once he moved on top of her he just could not stop himself. He did feel bad that, during their last coupling, when she did try to stop him, he smacked her in the face. He had never hit a woman before. He knew that was wrong, but if that was the worst thing he had done, it was far from a tragedy.
A few minutes later, as Peter dressed, he thought of asking the woman her name again, but she seemed to be asleep and, he thought, “What’s the point?” Then he remembered that her purse had been empty and she had an overdue phone bill, so he pulled a few twenties from his wallet to leave for her, but decided he should not do that. He worried that she might be insulted; besides, he did not want to think of their night in bed together as if it had been based on a financial arrangement.
When Peter reached the sidewalk, even though he was just a few blocks from Faye’s apartment, and she was probably home, getting ready for work, he no longer wanted to visit her. Deciding he would drop by at another time, he stopped off for breakfast at a coffee shop, after which he took the subway back to Queens.
Two months later, Peter met Ellen Weiss at a party. She liked his strapping good looks. He loved the way she moaned and clung to him when they kissed and, later, when they had sex. Two intense weeks later, he told Ellen that he loved her. She said she would not see any other men if he got himself a steady job and cut down on his drinking. The next day, after Peter told the owner of a local department store that he had been in the Quartermaster Corps in Vietnam, the man, who was a veteran of the Korean War, hired him as manager of the stockroom. He asked Peter to swear to him that he was “clean, sober, and honest as the day is long.” Peter swore. Then they both smiled and shook hands.
Not quite a year later, during which time Peter had managed to do without so much as a beer or a glass of wine, he proposed to Ellen. She looked at the one-carat engagement ring that Peter held out to her and said that she would marry him. The next night, at his parents’ house, with Faye and Howard present, Peter announced their engagement. He never forgot Howard’s odd reaction: the man looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. He sat for a few seconds, bewildered, before coming around the table to awkwardly congratulate the couple, and then, while everyone else laughed and kissed and hugged each other, he returned to his seat and resumed eating.
The engagement ring had cost Peter just about all the money he had saved from his job, but Ellen, who earned a good salary as a nurse in a high-end cosmetic surgery practice, had a few thousand dollars in a bank account. She said they could use that money and her charge card to pay for the lavish wedding that she wanted. Her parents helped out a bit and Peter’s parents gave them a $2,000 wedding gift. Faye was one of Ellen’s maids of honor. She kissed and hugged and smiled at Peter and Ellen during the reception. Howard was friendly ... and typically strange.
Peter and Ellen spent a week in Miami Beach. Even though they had been intimate on dozens of occasions, this was the first time they actually slept in the same bed and woke up together.
Peter and Ellen settled into their new apartment in Flushing. For most of the first year it was delightful, but then Ellen, who took care of the bills, realized that their combined salary did not stretch as far as she had imagined it would, especially since they had charge card bills in the thousands as a result of their wedding, honeymoon, and the furniture and carpeting they had purchased for their apartment. She began to feel bitterly disappointed and gloomy and angry. She repeatedly asked Peter to find a better job. He told her that he would try, but he liked his current position and had no intention of looking for a new one.
Then, one Saturday night, walking home from the movies in a freezing rain, Ellen, sounding annoyed, said, “I don’t understand why the hell you always have to do that.”
“Walk through puddles.”
“You know. I’ve told you: that’s what we did in ’Nam.”
“Well, you’re not there now. It’s an aggravating habit. You’re in Queens now, and each time you do that you soak your shoes or your sneakers and ruin them … and you track water and mud into the apartment, and guess who has to clean up.”
“I’ll dry them before I go in. Don’t be so grumpy.”
“I’m not grumpy. I’m being practical and I’m being smart.”
“Oh, another reminder of how you went to college and I didn’t.”
“No. It’s just a comment about how we can’t afford to buy new shoes each time you ruin a pair and about how I do all the housework, even though I work as many hours as you do at your miserable little job.”
Peter stopped walking. He had an overwhelming, irresistible urge to react to those last three words, as if they were gnat bites that he had been trying to ignore but were now driving him crazy and needed a vigorous scratching. He did not fully understand it, but those words triggered the memory of comments that Ellen had made recently and looks she had given him and other types of looks that she no longer gave him, all of which had been irritating him for weeks. When Ellen, standing under her umbrella, stopped and turned back to Peter, he took a step toward her and then he stomped over and over again in a puddle, splashing her legs with icy-cold water.
“Why did you do that?” she shrieked.
“Because you’re a bitch, and it felt good!”
“And you’re a loser and not so great in bed!” she hissed at him.
“You’re a fat cow and a royal pain in the ass!”
Ellen thrust her umbrella at Peter over and over again. He held up his hands to protect his face. With each lunge, he felt smaller and weaker and more like a little boy. When Ellen had expended all of her fury she threw down the umbrella and turned around to walk home in the rain. Peter picked it up, ripped off the fabric, and broke off most of the spokes. Then, still enraged, he repeatedly slammed what was left of the umbrella against a nearby fire hydrant until the shaft split in two. Spent, he threw what was still in his hands into the street and walked to the nearest bar.
When, one week later, Peter called Ellen from his parents’ house, he asked her how she was but he did not apologize. He assumed she would. Instead, she was cold and impatient, making it clear that she wanted the conversation to be over as quickly as possible. When he realized that she was playing hardball, and because he did miss her, he said, “I’m sorry about what I said and what I did—splashing you.”
“Really? I’m glad you did it.”
“Because you expressed your feelings. You attacked me.”
“Attacked you? It was water. I splashed you.”
“Well, the attorney I spoke to said it could be considered assault.”
“Attorney? Assault? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t want you coming back.”
“I don’t want to be married to you.”
“I’m coming home tonight. Now. We have to talk about this.”
“No!” she screamed over the phone. “I’ve changed the locks. You’re not coming in. I don’t want to see you again, except in court.”
Peter took his father’s car and was at the building five minutes later, just as Larry Parkins walked out of the lobby and got into his Corvette. Peter double parked, got out, and approached Larry as he was quickly maneuvering his car back and forth so as to pull out from his spot. Larry looked tense. Peter, hot with rage, knocked on the window of the car and told Larry to roll it down. Larry sat there, his hands tightly on the steering wheel, and did not touch the window controls. After a few seconds of Peter slamming his hands against the window and the other man refusing, Peter hoisted himself up and sat on the hood of the car. Then, when Larry still did not open his window, Peter stood up on the hood and jumped up and down, climbing off once he had dented it into the shape of a wading pool. Then he walked back to his father’s car and opened the trunk. Just as Larry pulled away from the curb, Peter ran back and swung a tire iron, smashing a tail light.
Peter left his father’s car double parked and stormed into the building, slamming the lobby door against a wall, and bolted up the stairs. When he reached the apartment he saw that, as Ellen had said, his key would not fit in the lock. Blindingly angry and tormented, he wondered how many times Larry had been in his apartment. He pounded on the door and yelled through it. After five minutes of that, during which time several people opened their doors and told Peter to keep it down, Ellen shouted that she was going to call the police. That further enraged him. He pummeled the door even harder, using his palms and his fists. Finally, Ellen called through the closed door that she would open it and talk to Peter in the hallway. When she came out of the apartment, even though she was fully dressed, he knew—he thought that he could smell the rank odor of it on her skin—that she had just been in bed with Larry. She asked him what he wanted.
“I want to be married to you.”
“Well, it’s too late. It’s over.”
“Is it because of Larry?”
“Larry Parkins, Dr. Larry Parkins, who was coming out of the building as I drove up. Larry, who wouldn’t open his window to talk to me. He looked scared shitless; the same Larry who peeled out of his spot to get away. Oh, that is, after I smashed his car. That Larry.”
“What? You’re a crazy person. It must have been a coincidence that he was walking out when you got here.”
“I’ll find out. I’ll go to his house now—I know where he lives—and I’ll ask him who he knows in this building besides you and I’ll ask him why he looked so scared and why he wouldn’t talk to me.”
“Don’t go there, Peter. He’ll call the police.”
“I don’t think so. He’ll probably try to calm me down so his wife doesn’t hear what I have to say and because he won’t want me to spread the word in that snooty face-lift factory where he—and you—work that he’s been screwing my wife. My wife! The wife I thought loved me.”
“We’re married, but I don’t love you and don’t want you referring to me as my wife, as if I’m your property.”
“So? What are we going to do?”
“You’re going to go to your parents’ house, Peter, and get some sleep, and go to work tomorrow, and in a week or so, we’ll meet in an attorney’s office and we’ll arrange an amicable divorce, and then we’ll both be happy.”
“I’ll go, Ellen, if you answer one question.”
“First you have to promise ... truth.”
“How long, Ellen?”
“How long what?”
“You and Larry.”
After a moment of thought, she said, “Four months.”
Peter stopped off for a few drinks before driving to his parents’ house. Then, as he pulled out from the curb without looking, a truck smashed into the car. Peter, who had not been wearing a seat belt, shot across the seat, hitting his head against the passenger-side window.
Hours later, Peter called his parents to tell them that he was in the emergency room and needed a ride home, but then he remembered that he had taken his father’s car and did not know where it was. When he told that to his father and he heard the man howl, Peter wished he was dead. Maybe, he thought, I am dead, and this is my personal hell.
A few days later, after Peter and his father had been at each other’s throats over and over again, he reluctantly moved into Faye’s apartment in Manhattan. Ellen had called him a few nights before to say that she had taken some vacation time and planned on visiting a friend who lived in California for a few weeks. Peter, feeling stabbed in the heart, was sure she was with Larry Parkins. Since he had taken more than a week off from work without even making a phone call to his employer because he had been too depressed and too hung over to even get out of bed, the man sent a termination letter to him, along with his last check. Ellen had forwarded it, unopened, to his parents’ house.
Peter could not look Faye in the eye as he shuffled into her apartment. He was profoundly ashamed of how his life had fallen apart and how dirty and smelly he was; he had not showered, shaved, combed his hair, or even changed his underwear in days because he had devoted all of his energy to attempting to drink himself to death. He allowed Faye to lead him to the kitchen for a meal, as if he were a child. Then they talked and he cried, after which, at her insistence, he took a shower while she washed his clothes in the basement laundry room of the building.
Peter remained sober for the entire time he stayed with Faye and Howard and swore that he would find a job, but during each and every second of the day he thought of Ellen—her beautiful eyes and hair and her lovely body, which he had always described as “made for love.” He pictured her smile and her lips and her kisses and how it felt to hold her and make love to her. And then, with stunning pain, he pictured her with Larry Parkins, and he felt as if the walls were not only closing in on him, but crushing his skull and fracturing his spine, and he felt too weak to get out of bed, let alone look for work.
Then Howard suggested that he work in the bookstore. That was very generous. Peter had always suspected that beneath that array of strange behaviors and quirks Howard had a good heart.
Peter liked working the job. The atmosphere in the store was pleasant, the customers were nice, and while he was there he was busy enough most of the time to keep painful thoughts of Ellen out of his mind. He knew it was supposed to be only a stop-gap job, and he accepted with gratitude the few dollars per hour that Howard paid him, but he really needed a change of shirts and pants. He could not get into his and Ellen’s apartment to pick up clothing and personal items because she was in California or somewhere else and, of course, she had changed the locks, so, one day, when a customer plunked down a pile of books and took three twenty-dollar bills out of his wallet, Peter said, “Oh, cash. Sure, we can take that.” He used a calculator, not the cash register, to arrive at the total; then he added in tax and rounded off the $52.29 total to $50.00, saying it was a discount for paying cash. He took the twenties and used ten dollars from his wallet for change. After the customer walked out quite pleased with his discount Peter put the money in his pocket. Later in the day, when a woman with cash in hand came to the counter, Peter did not mention the discount because he realized that if he continued to do that, one of the customers might ask Howard about it at some later date, so he said the cash register was not working and he had to use a calculator. He did not round the total down because he feared that might get back to Howard too. Luckily, he had the right change for that customer. At that point, he stopped pocketing cash for the day.
Peter made sure he had plenty of cash of all denominations and lots of coins the next time he worked at the bookstore. He did not buy new clothing or spend any of the money that he took from the store on anything else. After a month of skimming cash he had accumulated close to four hundred dollars. At that point, he felt guilty and he could not understand why he had taken the money in the first place. He wanted to put it back, but could not figure out how to do that without causing Howard to grow suspicious.
Days later, when Howard asked about the shortfall, Peter denied that he knew anything about it. Even as he was acting offended and replying to Howard’s questions with sarcasm, he wanted to tell the truth, but he could not admit in front of Faye, his baby sister, that he was a thief, so he stormed out of the apartment and headed to the nearest bar, where, within three hours of drinking and buying rounds for everyone in the place, he had eaten through most of the money that he had filched. At some point later that night he lost his wallet and his keys. With just a few dollars in a pants pocket he made his way to the subway and back to his parents’ house, where he knocked on the door until he woke them up. Once he was in the house he passed out, and while the EMS technicians and police officers were there he defecated in his pants. Later, after showering and dressing in some of his father’s clothes, deeply ashamed, he argued with his parents, threw objects from the table and kitchen cabinets to the floor, and vomited, and then he bolted from the house, with his mother and father running after him.
He took the subway to the apartment that he had shared with Ellen. Hot and angry and excited, he rammed the door over and over, finally forcing his way in. After searching the rooms and checking the bed, he packed a suitcase with clothing, put a small amount of cash and a credit card of Ellen’s into a pocket, and headed to Penn Station, where he boarded a train to Los Angeles via Chicago. He hoped he would miraculously be able to find his wife and that she would take him back.
A week later, he had no money; after using the credit card three times, a store clerk said it had been cancelled, and took it from him. Now, with no job, no suitcase—someone had stolen it during Peter’s first five minutes in Los Angeles—and no idea of how to find Ellen, he followed a couple of homeless people to a shelter. There, he became friends with a group of Vietnam vets who taught him how panhandle and where to go for meals and pointed out places in which to sleep. He did not drink, even when others in the group passed around a bottle.
Then, during a day of blistering heat he met Milagro, a short, thin, dark-skinned woman with sumptuous black hair, a couple of years his senior. She had lived on the streets for more than a year, from the time she and her husband had been evicted from their apartment and he ran off, probably back to Mexico. She gave Peter water and brought him to her “home,” a canvas lean-to in the shadow of a highway overpass. A couple of months later, when she told Peter that she was pregnant, he promised to find a job and an apartment. However, before he could go job hunting he had to clean up and have nice clothes, so, promising himself that this would be the last time, Peter committed one more felony: late that night, he broke into a men’s clothing store and stole a pair of pants, two shirts, a pair of shoes, some socks, and a package of underwear. Early the next morning, after washing in the bathroom of a McDonald’s, he persuaded a local barber to give him a haircut and shave, swearing that he would return in the evening to sweep out the place, clean the bathroom, and perform any other chores the man wished him to do. Then he walked up and down the streets of downtown Los Angeles, going into every place with a Help Wanted sign. Near the end of the day, Morris Rothstein, a frail, stooped, elderly man with baby-fine white hair who owned a well-stocked convenience store, hired Peter, saying that he could start work immediately.
Two weeks later, when the man noticed that Peter wore the same couple of now-soiled shirts and pair of pants every day and seemed not shave or bathe regularly, he said, “You really don’t live where you said you do.” Peter admitted that he and his pregnant “wife” were homeless. Rothstein shook his head sadly and then he attended to a customer at the sales counter. At closing time, he said, “I’m going to take a chance on you, but, at my age, it’s not so much of a chance. I mean, what do I have to lose? Here, take this paper; it’s my address. I have an extra room. In fact, I have a lot of extra rooms.”
“I can’t go without her, Mr. Rothstein.”
“Of course. I know. Go and get your wife.”
Peter’s eyes filled with tears and he kissed Rothstein on the cheek. An hour later, he and Milagro rang the man’s doorbell. Rothstein let them in, showed them the house, and told them they could choose any vacant room they wanted, saying, “My wife, my Esther, she died two years ago, and my kids live on the East Coast. They’re both professionals—very important positions—a doctor and a lawyer. I see them maybe once every two years.” He gave Peter a key and said that he and Milagro should feel free to eat his food. Then, wrinkling his nose, he said, “Please take showers, the two of you.”
When Mr. Rothstein came down to the kitchen the next morning, Peter was sitting at the small table sipping a cup of coffee. Milagro had gotten up very early and cleaned the kitchen, after which she cooked breakfast. Rothstein said, “You didn’t have to make breakfast for me. I usually just eat a packaged donut and have a cup of coffee at the store,” but Milagro insisted that he eat the omelet she had cooked and drink the coffee she had prepared. Then she told him that she would clean the house from top to bottom while he and Peter were at work.
After a few days, not only had Mr. Rothstein seen that Peter and Milagro were good house guests, but he began to enjoy his time with them during meals and after work. Milagro asked Rothstein why he had so many containers of the same medicines all over the house. When he replied that he didn’t always remember to take his medications and he sometimes renewed prescriptions before he needed refills, Milagro, looking deeply concerned, said she would organize them and make sure he took the right dosage each day.
A month later, Rothstein told Peter, “I’m 83 years old; tired.”
“You want me to do more at the store? Absolutely.”
“What I want is you should work in the store without me some days. I want to sleep late once or twice a week and sit in the sunshine.”
Peter enthusiastically agreed.
In time, Milagro gave birth to a girl, who they named Faye.
When, three years later, Milagro saw that Mr. Rothstein had grown increasingly frail and unsteady when he walked she convinced him to retire, promising that she would take good care of him. She helped him out of bed in the morning, brought him his medications, cooked for him, helped him to bathe, and spent hours talking with him. She taught Faye, who adored the old man, to call him abuelito. When he wanted to get out of the house for a while, Milagro would take Faye by one hand and Mr. Rothstein with the other and walk the few blocks to the store, where the old man would sit on a folding chair out front and talk with customers going in and out.
One very warm August day, as Morris Rothstein sat on his chair in the sunshine, he fell asleep, as he often did. When Peter checked on him during a quiet period of time he realized that the man was not breathing; his skin, despite the outside temperature, was cold to the touch. Peter looked at the kind old man, and, grief-stricken, cried.
Mr. Rothstein’s son and daughter arrived two days later to attend the funeral service and the interment that Peter had arranged. Later, after opening a large envelope and reading the document it contained, they exchanged a glance and, without a word, handed their father’s Last Will and Testament to Peter. Then they said good-bye and flew back to their very important positions on the East Coast. When Peter read the will he saw that Mr. Rothstein had left the house, the lease for the store, and his savings to him and Milagro.
That afternoon, Peter, feeling heartbroken, because he missed the old man, and weighed down by old guilt because of his wanton killing of the bar owner Cavanaugh and all of the other harm that he had caused during his not quite fifty years, picked up the phone to call his parents. The last time he had been with them, five years before, he had wrecked their kitchen and then, deeply ashamed, run from the house. He dialed, only to hear an automated message indicating that that number was no longer in service; no forwarding number. He did not remember the phone number at Faye’s apartment, so he called Columbia University. Someone in Human Resources said that Faye Berenson no longer worked there and that they had no contact information for her.
Better this way—for everybody, Peter thought. My old, crappy life and all the crap I did was there. My new life, with Milagro and my baby, is here. I’ll never return to New York. I made too many bad choices and hurt too many people there and I had to walk through too many icy puddles.