Steve Lewis is a longtime freelance writer and a member of the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute faculty. Married 46 years (7 kids, 16 grandchildren), he has been published widely, from the notable to the beyond obscure. (See stevelewiswriter.com.) Steve writes, "During much of the Sixties I was writing self-indulgent poetry in Madison, Wisconsin—mostly to meet girls—but somewhere along the way the poet James Hazard gave me a flashlight to navigate my way through the self-reflective shadows and into what I now understand is the illuminating voice. I carry it daily up to my writing space in the Shawangunk Mountains as well as into workshops in New York's Hudson Valley and the windy beaches of Hatteras Island, NC."
Jeffrey Gordon shouldered his way into the hot auditorium at Walt Whitman Jr-Sr High with his sneering friends in tow. He wore a black AC/DC t-shirt, long black hair slicked back into a mullet, and across his chiseled face a smirk as sharp as the knife I could have sworn I saw glinting in his back pocket. I had already been seated in Row L, craning my barbered head back, watching him and his posse of seventh grade goons being herded into separate aisles by Mr. Sandberg, the Driver's Ed. Teacher, who knew trouble when he saw it coming.
So there was no knife in his pocket, but there was a silver comb. To a boy who had never owned a comb in his whole life much less run one across his head, I tried to think if I had ever combed my hair. Before I could answer my own question, though, Jeffrey plopped down next to me, smirking and nodding his head as if we were already friends. And when Mrs. Freedman, the Principal, leaned into the microphone and it squealed, he poked me in the elbow and snorted.
Despite the danger I feared sitting to my right, Jeffrey quickly surprised me—me in my button down shirt and Dockers—by reaching into his pocket and asking me under his breath what I got for my homeroom. I could feel my cheeks turning red; I whispered back that I didn't know what a homeroom was. He shrugged and slipped me some Skittles from his fist and proceeded to tell me about the set-up at Whitman. I pretended to slip the sticky candies in my mouth, but kept them in my sweaty palm while he told me that his brother, TJ, was in the high school so he pretty much knew everything we'd ever need to know.
Mr. Sandberg looked right past me then and told Jeffrey to shut up.
I was a shy, pampered, butterball of a big-eared product of the Freedom Trail Elementary School. Practically everyone who went to Freedom Trail lived in the manicured new developments that had appeared on either side of the Expressway after the Korean War. Jeffrey and his friends went to Samuel J. Morse in Mineola, a working class community, Thirties homes on tree-lined streets. The two communities were as different as dawn and dusk, Met and Yankee, Jew and Catholic.
When the dirty blonde kid in the row in front of us leaned forward and belched in the ear of the skinny pinheaded boy in front of him, Jeffrey flicked him hard with his thumb and middle finger right in the back of his greasy skull.
The kid spun around and glared into Jeffrey's unwavering blue eyes, but said nothing and left the skinny kid alone after that. Mr. Sandberg saw the whole thing, though, and Jeffrey, the school's new troublemaker, was yanked from the auditorium and given the first of a hundred or more detentions he would accrue over the next six years.
The next morning, the first official day of school, Jeffrey apparently recognized me backed up against a locker trying to avoid being trampled by the hordes of kids in new school clothes jostling each other and moving toward their assigned homerooms. He snatched the curled paper out of my hand and read it. "Follow me," he said with a smirk, "we're in the same homeroom.
Jeffrey became my best friend that day.
I became his best friend the following spring after he convinced me that underneath all my baby fat I was strong enough to join the WWJH track team. From then on we ate lunch together every day, passed dirty notes about girls in class, rode bikes on Saturdays, watched TV on the phone together; and at the end of seventh grade Jeffrey passed me my first cigarette underneath the Willis Avenue viaduct.
As one school year passed into the next, Jeffrey led me through each stage of a boy's entry into manhood: my first Playboy; my first beer behind Susie Allman's garage; my first joy ride when we were fourteen, the two of us barreling around Elting in his father's garaged powder blue 1965 Pontiac Bonneville; even dragging me along on his fifteenth birthday when his brother TJ took him over to the dingy little house by the Manhasset train station and got him his first one ever. (I waited on the front porch.)
The summer between sophomore and junior years, Jeffrey threatened to break my arm (he had it twisted behind my back) if I didn't ask my lust interest, Jill Crowley, on a date. She was totally out of my league, but shortly after Labor Day I had my license and Jill and I were officially a couple, holding hands in the halls, going to the movies and the diner, making out over by the duck pond in the village.
Jeffrey had been going out with Jackie Moritz, the hottest girl in the class above ours, for several years by that time, but we never double-dated. It's all a big blur now, but what I remember most from those years was after we dropped off the girls on those Friday nights, the two of us driving around and around that dark town for hours looking for one another. And when we finally found each other, we'd sit in Jeffrey's rumbling Ford, the radio blaring, the two of us singing and laughing so hard that I sometimes wondered—alone in my bed later on with only fears—if I loved Jeffrey more than Jill. I definitely had a better time with him than I did with her. With Jill I talked and bared my soul and my nearly innocent body; with Jeffrey there was no need to talk, we just drove around and let our souls rest for a few hours. Although it is difficult to imagine now, when talk is at the heart of all my close relationships, I can't remember ever having had a serious conversation with Jeffrey about anything. I also can't remember a time when I slept over at his house—or he mine.
When high school ended rather abruptly like the end of a double feature, lights on, screen blank, nothing but summer out and the rest of our lives ahead, both of us knew—pretty much without saying—that our friendship was over. Jeffrey worked at his uncle's garage and went to summer school to redo the World History class he had failed for too many absences. Trimmed down and armed with American Red Cross Lifeguard certification, I spent my days at the Manhasset Country Club with a whistle I swung around by the official blue and white lanyard they had issued to me. Most nights I was alone with Jill.
We still got together every few nights to drink beer, smoke a joint, and drive around town, but it was not the same. Jeffrey knew I would be leaving for Wisconsin when the summer was over, but I had no idea about his plans—and he never offered. I figured he'd join the Army.
So when we met at the Parkway Diner on the Sunday evening before Labor Day, we had cokes and fries and laughed about how he was smarter than the summer school teacher . . . and when it was time to go, he shook my hand and punched me in the shoulder; and I, not knowing how to tell my best friend that he was the most important person in my life, turned away and went to Jill's house for our final make-out session in her knotty pine basement.
Neither of us were letter writers. I drove over to his house when I came home from Madison right before Christmas. His mother told me through the screen door, cigarette bobbing up and down in her mouth, that he had joined the Air Force and was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi.
And that spring, after my dad choked to death on a piece of steak, I got a Hallmark condolence card from Jeffrey; but he just signed his name, nothing else. I understood. With my father gone, nothing seemed the same to me any more. I pretty much forgot about Jeffrey, broke up with Jill, changed majors, going from my dad's choice, Pre-Med, to Sociology to English, eventually dropping out midway through the summer term and getting a job sweeping floors at the Capitol Times. My mother took her grief and a modest insurance settlement and moved to the east coast of Florida.
# # #
It was Jeffrey who recognized me more than twenty years later at Grand Central Station as I was carried in by the the early morning commuter coffee rush. I had actually noticed the meticulously dressed man near Zaro's leaning into a croissant, but then he looked up, pointed a manicured finger in my direction and smirked, "Robert."
It took me a moment to react. I instantly knew it was Jeffrey, but I couldn't find the syllables. His dark blue pinstriped suit, white starched shirt, red silk tie, and black leather attaché made him appear the wealthy and successful lawyer that he was. I was in baggy two-day-old Levi's cords, a wool sweater, and a tweed jacket with a Times folded under my arm—a trade editor.
Unable to do it when we last saw each other, Jeffrey popped the rest of the croissant into his mouth and we hugged. Joyfully. Slapping each other on the back as if we had done it hundreds of times.
It turned out that we had been on the same train. And still standing in place we condensed our lives for each other in a few meager lines: Jeffrey was divorced, a partner in a midtown law firm, a sometimes marathoner and sailor. I quickly mentioned my seven year bachelor's degree from Wisconsin, Janice and the kids, and the medical trade magazine where I was then Associate Editor.
He nodded, put his hand on my taller shoulder, and told me to come along while he took care of an errand. I followed alongside of him down to the lower level and over near the closed Oyster Bar where I watched as he approached a solitary figure waiting in the shadows of the Whispering Gallery. One of the growing number of the dispossessed found around Grand Central since Bloomberg became mayor, a man who looked as if his soul had been snatched from behind his eyes one night while he slept in a doorway. He just stood there in shadows as my old friend reached into the breast pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a ten dollar bill.
The man didn't say a word, took the bill in his shaking paw, turned on his filthy thready running shoes, and shuffled into the darkness. Jeffrey waited until he was almost invisible and then began to walk up the ramp.
"Wow," I said behind his shoulder, "is it your birthday?" knowing full well it wasn't.
I walked faster to keep pace. "No?"
"No. I just help him out."
"What's his story?"
Jeffrey glanced over at me with that old smirk. "I don't know."
"But don't you know him?"
"No." He smirked again.
I put my hand on his padded shoulder. "But why him?"
He laughed then and paused before the doors onto 42nd Street. "Why not him?"
I laughed back, but more in confusion than happiness, commuters moving around us like waves into a jetty. "You always had a good heart, Jeffrey. Me? I help out, but mostly I just look away."
He looked at his watch. "You do what you can, Robert. That's all anyone can ask. We can't play God."
We walked out into the cold October drizzle, the first sign of winter in this cold city. At Madison he slapped me on the back and we clasped hands promising to stay in touch. We didn't hug the second time. He went his way; I went mine.
But, as these things seem to happen in a world that defies reason and psychology, after more than twenty years of silence I saw Jeffrey again a week later. My schedule at the magazine had changed temporarily and for the next few months I would be taking an earlier train from Croton-Harmon. I looked up from my Times when the conductor's voice crackled "Riverdale" and there was Jeffrey walking down the aisle, carrying the leather case and wearing a raincoat straight out of my Orvis catalog.
With that old smirk he motioned me over toward the window so we could sit together. Moments later, the train lurching forward, we were laughing as easily as we had in high school, reminiscing about old friends recently seen, talking music, Yankees, the homeless, the president, restaurants, nothing more important than anything else.
Jeffrey seemed happy enough, but I thought I could see loneliness in his pale blue eyes—and then wondered if it was the same confusion I saw in the bathroom mirror each morning, hidden from public view, lurking behind the satisfying vision of a pretty wife and magazine-cute daughters dropping me off in the early morning mist at the Croton train station.
There were no kids from his marriage—his wife got the apartment on the upper east side—a patronizing smile when I asked about a girlfriend. "I'm too busy right now." I pressed him out of some lingering annoyance I once had with his high school unwillingness to explain himself, but got no answers. He did tell me a little about Real Estate Law and how he was involved with an environment group and a land trust, working most nights until two or three a.m.
With little to share on my end, I slipped into a rambling apology for my utterly domestic life, telling him the lie that I had a novel roughed out in my desk that I would piece together when the kids were older.
At Grand Central we followed the same path as before, down to the Whispering Gallery, where the same stubbly vacant stare awaited him at the closed entrance to the Oyster Bar. Jeffrey reached into his breast pocket, just as he had done a week ago, took out a crisp ten dollar bill and handed it to the man who neither smiled nor thanked him, taking it as I would a flyer from 42nd St. Camera, turning and walking away.
"So," I said following Jeffrey up the ramp, "do you give him that every day?"
He looked at his watch. "I guess so," he said, nodding then as if he thought about it before.
I quickly calculated that he was spending around $2500 a year to—what? help his fellow man? keep an alcoholic well-stocked in rotgut wine? feed a guilty conscience? pay off a debt or blackmail?
"Why do you do it, Jeffrey?" I finally asked, clasping the shoulder pad on his raincoat.
He stopped, shrugged. "You do what you can, Robert. That's all anyone can ask."
"Do you care about him?" pointing down the dim ramp.
"Not really." He started to walk away.
"He's not even grateful."
"Does it matter?"
"That's an awful lot of money when you consider that it's every day."
He looked over with disdain. "Not to me."
"Jeffrey, he's probably drinking it all up."
"That's not my business. And what do you care?"
"Well, you could be—"
"Putting it to better use somewhere else?" He seemed to be mimicking someone, not me.
"Yes," I said, sure I had overstepped my line in the sand by a few yards. But I was too far in to stop myself. "It's your money. You should have some say. It's like—what?—the tail wagging the dog."
He frowned. "Very original, Robert. I imagined better out of you."
I was chastised. "Sorry," I said and should have left it at that. But I couldn't stop myself: "I take it that you've heard that before?"
The frown turned into a patronizing smile. "My lovely but uneducated ex-wife. Said I had money and time for every lost cause in this shitty world, but nothing left for her." And then he was gone, lost in the sea of suits heading up 42nd Street.
# # #
From that morning on, through most of an early winter that seemed to drive more and more homeless off the streets of Manhattan seeking heat if not solace in the maze of tubes around Grand Central, we sat together on the train. After a few days we began to greet each other like an old married couple—a smile, a joke, a little bit of news, the frigid Hudson clipping by, Jeffrey working on a brief, me reading The Times.
Jeffrey was always impeccably dressed. I was not. I continued to try to find out about his private life, but he mostly refused my entreaties, smiling at me like I was a child, too young to understand the ways of a man out in the world: "I work, I work it out, I work it out—and now, Robert old friend, let me do my work."
And each morning the man with the blank stare waited for him outside the closed Oyster Bar, snagging the bill in his paw just like an annoyed train conductor taking a ticket.
In the weeks before Thanksgiving, as the first breaths of winter slipped through the open front door in Croton, there were more and more homeless lingering around the station—men and women in filthy rags, asleep on the wooden benches or on the floor down in the tubes, at least until the cops rapped their sticks and moved them along, open sores on their shins, scars across their faces. Almost daily one or another of them would walk up to Jeffrey or me and ask for some spare change. Sometimes they gave reasons; sometimes not. Some days I would blindly pick through the fistful of change in my pocket to find a couple of quarters, but mostly I turned away, pursing my lips, shaking my head, walking along a half step behind Jeffrey, who never gave a cent to anyone who asked.
Yet every day, without fail, he paid the creature down on the lower level, then walked purposefully away from the Whispering Gallery, through the crowds, up the ramp, past the newsstand and out onto 42nd Street, past the jingling Salvation Army soldier and made a right on Vanderbilt Avenue where we would part company.
"Why him and not anyone else?" I croaked on a Thursday a few weeks before Christmas.
"Do I need a reason?" Jeffrey smiled so sweetly then, just as he had when I told him that I didn't know what a homeroom was.
"No, I just—"
"Well, I just, too. The man is hungry. I do what I can, Robert. That's all."
I grabbed onto his arm before he turned onto Vanderbilt. "But why him, Jeffrey? Why not all the others who ask? Why him?"
"Why not him?" He patted my hand as my wife might do when I ask why she won't make up with her sister. "Maybe because he has the good sense not to ask, Robert, my friend. You always did have to make sense out of everything."
I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but he cut me off: "Now stop asking. It's getting old." There was no smirk. He turned away then, my hand still extended, now empty, and he was quickly absorbed into the crowd of men and women in suits.
Jeffrey wasn't on the train Friday morning. I feared I might never see him again so I thought to call him from work, but a Google white pages search led me down a dead end. No Jeffrey Gordons in Riverdale. And I couldn't remember—if I ever knew—the name of his firm.
That weekend I took my daughter Hallie to see Cinderella for her thirteenth birthday. A bulky white man of indeterminate age wearing grease-stained work pants and at least three or four honey sweaters approached us near the Subway Museum and extended a dry, dirty hand. "Could you help a brother out?"
I was about to do the purse-my-lips-shake-my-head thing and keep walking, but when I saw Hallie's horror I grabbed her arm with one hand and shoved the other in my pocket, feeling around for a dollar. I gave it to him. To my chagrin it turned out to be a ten, but I couldn't ask for it back.
He grabbed the bill, crumbled it in his fist, and looked up at me with his rheumy eyes. Then he turned to Hallie and said, "Your daddy's a good man. Remember that. And God bless you both."
I pressed a smile and led Hallie by the elbow around the man, as ashamed of myself as I've ever been, but still hoping she would always remember that moment, those words, as insincere as either man may have been in that moment.
From there I led my daughter down to the lower level near the Oyster Bar. I wanted to show her the Whispering Gallery. To my relief, no one was there. I directed her into one of the crisscrossing arches and told here stand facing the corner. She looked all around and then turned to the wall. I went to the opposite corner and, facing the seam of the walls, whispered her name, "Hallie."
At first she was speechless—or annoyed, I wasn't sure—but when I added, "I love you" she exclaimed "Daddy!" back at me, then repeated it as a whisper. To which I said, "Boopie!" (her family nickname), and after a pass or two more with other silly family intimacies, there was nothing more to whisper. We turned and met in the middle of the hall, hugged and walked arm in arm up the ramp.
To the play. Back to the train. To our safe warm home. To sleep on clean sheets. To the bowls of Grape Nuts the next morning.
But by then I had begun to dream the beggar's face. Every few nights I'd look up and he would appear out of nowhere, staring at me through blank eyes. A few times I know I looked up and he wasn't there, but I knew he was around, watching me from the shadows.
# # #
Less than two weeks before Christmas, the train running almost an hour late, I followed Jeffrey as he sprinted out of the car and through the crowd down to the lower level where his beneficiary stood passively at the same closed door as always. This time, however, standing next to him was a toothless woman, thirty or sixty, her thin shoulders sloping down into two massive shopping bags, red limp socks bunched into her laceless high tops.
Neither said a word as Jeffrey took a crisp ten from his pants pocket, handed it to his friend, then undid the button on his overcoat, reached into his suit jacket, removed the long wallet,and extracted a second ten dollar bill. She took it without a word and the two walked away into the shadows.
"Did you expect her?" I asked.
We stopped at the corner. "Will she be there tomorrow?"
Jeffrey looked at his watch. "I don't know. No. I don't know, Robert. I gotta go."
The following morning she was there again, hands inches above her shopping bags, right next to the soulless man who was by then a nightly visitor in my dreams. And with her was another woman—at least I thought she was a woman—straggly hair under a knit Jets cap. Jeffrey reached into his overcoat pocket and extracted a neat packet of bills, handing a ten to each of them.
When they left and I looked over at my friend, he just said, "Don't, Robert. Just don't."
The next day there were four; the following day, a Friday, five. For reasons he did not explain, he joined me on the train that evening.
He motioned me over to the window with an upward nod, sat down, and immediately extracted some document from his attaché.
"Jeffrey," I said, "they're going to break you."
"Not now, Robert. I've got work to do."
"But what—" he cut me off with a manicured index finger held up between us.
"We only do what we can."
"But what if even more show up next week?"
He smirked. "Where do you stop, Robert?"
"You can't play God, Jeffrey."
"That is right, my friend. We can't play God."
I opened my mouth to say something I hadn't yet planned, but after a pause Jeffrey went on: "I've been through this before, Robert. Just drop it."
"I can't drop it. I can't watch you."
"Then don't. I can see that you will never understand."
That night I drove Janice to bed early, weary of my obsessing over Jeffrey's state of mind. She patted my knee and got up off the couch with a sigh. From the living room arch she turned and said he must be guilty about something. "Why don't you invite him up for Christmas?"
I shook my head and stayed down in the dark living room nursing a tumbler of Jim Beam, the ice slowly melting.
After a while, the glass empty, I opened the iPad and tried looking him up again on whitepages.com but, again, there was no listing for a 38-year-old Jeffrey Gordon in Riverdale.
Monday on the train he looked tired, in need of a trim. I admired his new camel hair overcoat. He told me it wasn't new; he had found it in the back of his closet. Then I told him that I tried reaching him over the weekend.
"I gave up the landline years ago. Doesn't matter, though. I don't even answer the cell—I like my privacy."
Here was my opening. I pulled out my flip phone. "I don't think I have your cell number."
Looking disgusted, he reached into the camel hair overcoat, fumbled around for a second, and said, "Must be in my old coat. Sorry."
"You don't know your number?"
"Nope. Another time." Jeffrey opened up his attaché and while he thumbed through some folders I told him that Janice wanted me to invite him up for Christmas.
"My wife, Janice."
He smiled. "Well, thank her for me, Robert, but I have some family obligations on Christmas."
"Your mother still lives around here?"
He smiled again and shook his head. At the Oyster Bar there were eight men and women waiting for him. He pulled a packet of bills from his overcoat and peeled off a ten dollar bill to each of them. No one said a word.
I couldn't contain myself. "How about a thank you?" I snarled to the ingrates. "How about a goddamn thank you?"
Jeffrey frowned then, like one frowns at a misbehaving child. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, "Please forgive my friend here. I'll have to speak to him about his manners."
Then he grabbed me by the elbow and we walked up the ramp. "Jeffrey, this is getting out of hand," I scolded. "I'm worried about you. This isn't right. They're going to destroy you."
He grinned. Stopped in the middle of all that human traffic. "Don't be foolish, my long lost friend. I only do what I can. And I can do it."
Lost for words, I followed at his shoulder out of the station and, as usual, around to Vanderbilt, where he once again disappeared into the crowd. I was tempted to trail him to his office, but I was already late to work . . . and, owing to my recent lack of focus on anything unrelated to Jeffrey, I was already in a bit of trouble at the magazine.
Tuesday there were nine lost souls waiting in the Whispering Gallery. $90.
Wednesday, $100. $110 Thursday. And Friday, two days before Christmas, $120. I told the publisher that I would be taking the Christmas-New Years week off to be with my family. She said that was a good idea.
Sitting at my desk at home that evening, when I should have been helping Janice wrap presents or at least catch up on my work at the magazine, I wondered only how long Jeffrey could sustain the progression before he would begin taking away from his own necessities, somewhat like a pregnant woman with twins or triplets or quads . . . whose calories go to feeding the endlessly hungry fetuses before herself.
That night—and all the nights to follow that week—the man with no soul took up full residence in my dreams, holding a withered paw in front of me as if I was Jeffrey, the shutter in his pupil opened wide, revealing a vast expanse of tundra. I awoke Christmas Eve morning with the unwanted knowledge that watching Jeffrey empty himself scared me more than anything I had ever known: more than my father's death, more than my bout with testicular cancer when I was 24, more than Janice's brief affair three years before, more than my worst nightmares involving my girls. And night after night after night I saw in the horror of my own dream Jeffrey walking down a seemingly endless tiled corridor, handing ten dollar bill after ten dollar bill to an unbroken line of dumb, derelict men and women, one after another, until he would reach me, placing a ten dollar bill in my outstretched hand and moving along down the dirty tunnel of lost humanity.
There is no better way to describe it other than that I was an empty shell of a father and husband Christmas Day, going through the motions, neither here nor there until the day was done, the rest of the days of the week tumbling into each other with me closed inside my office claiming overwhelming deadlines until Janice and the girls stopped trying to roust me out of the house.
New Year's day I left the house early, before Janice and the girls were awake, and drove alone down to Riverdale, rolling up and down the quiet streets searching for Jeffrey, just as I had done years before, back then cruising around town all those nights after dropping off Jill, up and down the Long Island Expressway service road to Roslyn Road, in and around the maze of ticky-tacky Levitt ranch homes in the new developments, into Albertson, into Mineola, searching for my friend who said nothing but made me feel good inside.
Of course I didn't find him. Riverdale isn't Roslyn. This is not 1987.
Monday, the fourth day of the new year, my first day back at work, I overslept, trapped in my sleepless dreams, and missed the early train. And missed Jeffrey. At Grand Central I ran down to the lower level and over to the Whispering Gallery. No one was around, a pool of urine in one of the corners.
At lunch I searched Google as well as the Yellow Pages for the name of a midtown law firm that might trigger some memory for me, even though I was sure Jeffrey had never told me where he worked.
Tuesday I forced myself onto the correct train, which was like forcing something despicable into my mouth for my own good. At Riverdale Jeffrey strode onto the train still in need of a haircut, but as crisp and professional looking as the first day I saw him in front of Zaro's. He talked as if we had just seen each other the day before, asking pleasantly about my Christmas and New Year's. In turn I asked the same.
"Things couldn't be better."
"I mean really, Jeffrey." Once again he looked at me like I was a child and turned to his work.
At 125th St. I asked the name of his firm.
"Didn't I ever tell you?" He sounded sincere.
"No. I don't think so."
He turned down the ends of his lips and nodded, reaching into his coat pocket and coming back empty handed. "It's one of those hideously long winded names . . . I'll get you a card."
"It doesn't matter. Tell me the name, I'll remember enough of it to—"
He cut me off: "I'll get you a card."
I didn't feel like I could ask again.
At the Oyster Bar that morning there were nineteen sullen men and women waiting for Jeffrey. He walked down the line, stretching now into the shadows, and gave each one a ten dollar bill.
Wednesday there were twenty-one. Thursday, twenty-two. Friday, twenty-four.
I didn't sleep all weekend. Didn't even come to bed Saturday night. Sunday morning Janice came down to the den and, lip trembling, insisted I go see a shrink. "I don't know what to do, Robert."
"A shrink isn't going to change anything," I muttered. "I have to find a way to save him from himself."
"Robert, you can't help him . . . you don't know what you're getting yourself into. The girls—" I held up my hand like a traffic cop to stop her. "Go see a shrink, Robert," she said.
Monday morning Jeffrey's camel hair overcoat looked soiled. I wondered if he had slept in it—or on it. He sat down next to me but would not speak. At the Whispering Gallery there were twenty-five homeless souls.
I asked if there was something I could do, but he just walked ahead muttering something to himself. Out in the frigid January air he turned up Vanderbilt and disappeared into the crowd. I couldn't go to work yet, even though I had an early appointment with a client, and walked around and around Times Square trying to stop trembling.
At lunch, after a stern warning by the Publisher to get my "shit together," I called the New York City Department of Human Services and was told by a Mrs. McDermott that there was no law or injunction to keep someone from giving away his own money.
"He's killing himself!" I blurted out.
"He sounds like a wonderful man to me," she said.
I groaned. "Maybe I didn't explain this right, Mrs. McDermott. Isn't there anything I can do?"
She paused. I heard papers being shifted. "Are you a relative?"
"No. I'm his oldest friend in the world. Please help me."
She didn't answer. A few seconds later I realized we were disconnected. I called back, but another voice said that Mrs. McDermott was out to lunch. So I explained the whole thing again to her. When I was done she said she didn't think there was anything she could do to help.
"So what the hell am I supposed to do?"
"Sir? Don't speak to me that way."
"I'm sorry. What can I do?"
"You do what you can. That's all anyone can ask. Maybe you can take him to a counselor."
I didn't go work that afternoon. When I got home, I was unable to eat, unwilling to talk with Janice, I tried calling Jeffrey's mother, every Gloria Gordon listed in the tri-state area, but got no relief. That evening I went online and found the numbers of every Thomas Gordon (TJ, Jeffrey's brother) in the metropolitan area, but none of them was the right one, either.
On Tuesday morning, after swearing to Janice that I would call the shrink whose name and number were on the slip of paper she handed to me, I boarded the train and waited, my heart pounding. Jeffrey boarded, as usual, in Riverdale. His hair was disheveled, his fingernails dirty. By the time we reached the George Washington Bridge he fell asleep, head dropping, his overcoat over his lap, so I felt around in his pocket for his wallet, hoping to save him from himself for one day anyway, but found only a crumpled business card.
Down below I counted twenty-seven.
I was sweating profusely when I walked into the magazine office that morning. Ed Jansdorf, the editor, took one look at me and sent me home. "You need to see a doctor."
I didn't go home, instead wandered over to the Library and sat stone-faced in the Reading Room all morning. All afternoon.
On Wednesday, when there were twenty-nine lost souls waiting for him in a line down from the Oyster Bar, I ran over to a cop who looked at me with disgust and told me to mind my own business. Jeffrey didn't wait for me after he had handed out the last ten, so I raced up the ramp and caught up to him as he pushed his way out the doors and onto 42nd Street. From behind I grabbed his elbow: "Jeffrey, talk to me—"
He jerked his arm free and growled, "Fuck off, Robert. And don't follow me." I trailed him out into flurries swirling around the street and, keeping my distance, pulled his wrinkled card from my pocket and raced up to the address on Madison and 51stStreet. I was going to miss another appointment at the magazine.
The fortieth floor offices of Hamilton, Broadhurst, Levy and Schultz were as starched and pressed as Jeffrey appeared that first day at Zaro's. Panting, sweating now, I asked the receptionist to see Jeffrey Gordon.
He looked startled. "Mr. Gordon is no longer with this firm," he said.
"Of course." I nodded to an interior voice. "Well, let me see one of his associates."
"Do you have an appointment?"
"Yes!" I bellowed. "A half hour ago! I need to see someone now!"
The receptionist looked frightened. He pushed a button on the phone. "There is a gentleman here insisting on seeing Jeffrey Gordon."
A man who could have doubled for Jeffrey emerged from a heavy wood door. He was sneering. But after he took me in, he must have realized that I was not who he expected. Still, he was cautious. "I'm sorry, sir, but Mr. Gordon has not been associated with this firm for nearly six months. If he owes—"
My finger was in the air. "He doesn't owe me anything. I'm a friend, an old friend from high school. Jeffrey is in trouble."
"Yes," he said as if he understood. "How can I help you?"
Before I could speak, though, he waved me into the office.
I waited until he was seated behind the massive desk. "Tell me why he's destroying himself."
He took a deep breath. Exhaled through his nose. "I wish I could help you, Mr.—" I told him my name. "But I have no idea. I tried—"
I cut him off. "Where does he live?"
"I don't know, Mr. Levin. He once lived in Riverdale with his wife, but . . ." He opened his arms and showed me his palms.
There suddenly was nothing to say. I sat down, deflated. Looked up. The lawyer looked like he might cry. "How did you know him?"
"We met in law school in New Haven." He pointed behind him to the Yale diploma. "Jeff got there the hard way. I basically skied in from Dartmouth. Afterwards, I went corporate and he went into the Public Defenders office. After he got married, though, he needed to make some money and we were happy to bring him on board." He looked at his watch then. "I'm on the clock, Mr. Levin. Is there anything else?" His tears had evaporated.
"Like I said, I don't know. His marriage soured and he fell apart? He fell apart and his marriage soured? I don't know"
"Well, Christ, didn't you try to help him?"
He looked at me as Jeffrey might have. "I tried, Mr. Levin. But I don't think you can save someone who doesn't want to be saved."
I left and walked the snowy streets—up to 72nd and down to 14th—for the rest of the day, looking for Jeffrey.
That night in bed Janice wept, telling me over and over that my obligations were to her and the girls, not to Jeffrey. I smiled as Jeffrey might have. I said there was nothing to worry about. I would only do what I could. But that night, the man's filthy paw shaking my shoulder, I woke and prayed to God for Jeffrey's soul.
On Friday I saw him on the platform before he shuffled onto the train. He had lost his tie somewhere and the collar on his stained white shirt was ringed with dirt. When he sat down next to me, I had to hold my breath against the stench. I asked again if there was anything to do, but he just stared across me at the window. I said, "I understand, Jeffrey. I spoke with your friend in the law office yesterday."
He glanced over then and shook his shaggy head.
"Help me, Jeffrey," I cried.
"I can't help you now," he muttered. "Leave me alone, Robert. Leave me the fuck alone."
Lined up down the dark hall from the Whispering Gallery, there were thirty-four eviscerated souls, not counting Jeffrey. After he was done, he turned and pointed a filthy finger between my eyes and snarled, "Follow me and I'll kill you."
I walked into the office that morning and went straight to the washroom, sat down on the toilet, and cried and cried. After a while, I don't know how long, the secretary knocked on the door and asked apologetically if she should call my wife. I didn't answer.
When the managing editor knocked and demanded that I come out, I told him to fuck off.
"I'm going to have to call the cops, Bob."
"I'll fuckin' call them," I yelled back through the door. I washed my face, unlocked the door, and walked across an office full of embarrassed faces to the publisher's office. She patiently explained why they were letting me go and what my severance pay would be. I said I understood. She said she hoped I would find some peace.
I shrugged, got up, walked over to my desk where the secretary had left an empty carton on the swivel chair. She was crying now. I didn't want anything, not the two plaques for Outstanding Trade Reporting, not the pens, not the stapler, not even the coffee mug, just the photographs of Janice and the girls.
Without another word I walked out to the hall and, standing in front of the elevator, called an old friend in White Plains who had once pressed me to take a job writing and editing a medical industry newsletter. When he said he still wanted me, I lied and said I'd have to give my employer reasonable notice, so I'd start in two weeks.
Then I took the elevator down to the ground floor, walked over to 38th Street to a travel agency, booked a week in Antigua for Janice and me, called my sister-in-law and asked if the girls could stay with her for a week, and took the early train home.
Antigua was the right answer to a question nobody asked. The homeless man refused to leave my dreams, but the azure blue water, the glistening sun, the rum punches, the spicy Caribbean food, and Janice's sensual nature slowly brought me back to myself, allowing me to close my eyes at night and, for a while, see only darkness lapsing into daylight.
When we returned to muddy March in Croton, I put myself into my new job like a recent college graduate. I arranged day trips with Janice and the girls nearly every weekend through the end of winter and into the blooming spring.
I didn't tell Janice, but in late April, on Jeffrey's birthday, twenty-three years after I waited on the front porch of the dilapidated house near the Roslyn train station while Jeffrey lost his virginity to some vacant-eyed woman named Cherry, I took the 7:42into the city again. My heart was thudding as the train stopped in Riverdale.
Jeffrey did not get on the train.
At Zaro's, a homeless young woman asked me for some change and I gave her a dollar.
Downstairs, there was no one hanging around the closed Oyster Bar. And the Whispering Gallery, with its double crossed arches, was empty.
In one corner was a puddle of urine. I walked over to the opposite corner and whispered "Jeffrey." A man appeared from the shadows. His hair was matted and he wore a filthy, puffy down jacket. His tongue protruded from a dark gap in his yellowed teeth. He lifted his thick eyelids when I turned to face him, a shiver in my shoulders. I could see myself in the vast tundra of waving grasses through his vacant eyes. "Jeffrey?" I said.
He was shorter than Jeffrey, stockier, but I couldn't be sure.
The man just stared, his paw extended.
"Jeffrey, is this you?" I cried.
He stood his ground. I reached into the back pocket of my cords and took a ten dollar bill out of the wallet. But before I let him snatch it, I stuffed the bill in my front pocket like a used candy wrapper. I turned quickly then and pursed my lips as I ran up the ramp, the man screaming obscenities at my back as I headed back to the train, to Croton, to home, to Janice. Back to the children who need me. For them I say no.