The Final Installment of “The Man I Never Met”
Chapter 2 – Cont.
I never did like big crowds, I said to Walter, but I still couldn’t shake him. Bruce Walter was the kind of guy who could not take a hint.
So your friend—is he in the movie business?
He is indeed, said Walter, and his eyes went starry.
He has had his share of success.
Really? Films or television?
Action films. Walter began to blush.
His story was touching—trying to seduce a man who lost his wife?
He remembered he did not ask me yet about how Times Square had deteriorated for the better. I told him it had deteriorated in all the wrong places, you might say. Most of the decent Gentlemen’s Clubs moved to points elsewhere.
The Marriott bar was well overpriced, shaped like an incomplete S and cushioned with a sleepy brownness about the leather settees and the oak tables. Everything about it indicated twelve dollar beers, and when I surveyed the menu I was right. I hated predicting the future accurately, and around that time, hate was a frequent visitor. I could all but smell the Swede on my trail.
I did not pry into Walter’s background, whether he was from London or Liverpool, Bristol or Brighton, but knew he could buy a Lexus whenever he felt like. I knew enough about British accents to tell he was not from the north of England, and did not have even a dash of the working class in his bloodline. He was retired and rich, and I was going to relieve him of a generous chunk of his money.
Queens bleeds right into Long Island, I told him, so we’re half way there. The only thing Long Island about me was the Ice Tea I was drinking.
Bruce Walter wanted more intimate knowledge about Long Island—his idea was it was the real real New York—but Jackson Heights was close enough.
Chicago had a Marriott, too, and I tried to get away from all the city talk and head alone to the bar for a nightcap. He made like adhesive before I could object.
We made it to Chicago well before midnight.
I drove and the road supplied a striped line that ran through my every thought.
I prefer to dine with the living, I said.
She must have pulled off at the next exit, said Walter, but seemed disturbed. So tell me, he said. If you could dine on an unlimited budget in Manhattan with four dead celebrities—who would they be and where would you take them?
Not as fast as that, I said, as the Ferrari zoomed past us again. How was that possible?
A bit fast, aren’t you?
You, sir, are an enigma.
I adjusted the rear view mirror and saw his luggage. All he had was a simple black leather shoulder bag. I craved a look inside, but it could wait. I sped up past ninety.
Bruce Walter had a talent for eluding backstory. But he was the one paying me for the drive, and I loved to drive. I filled that need, just as I would fill every need until I found a greater one of my own—one that would trump the act I was putting on.
Looks like it’s cleared up, he said.
So you’re on vacation?
A hair-brained curiosity about the San Andreas Fault, and my Aunt Megan in Omaha. I haven’t seen her for such a long time I’m afraid she won’t recognize me.
There must be another reason you’re going to L.A. the long way.
Good heavens, what is that sound?
Then the rain turned to hail.
I think Walter was pretty nervous, as he plucked his silver pocket watch out from his suit. He pressed the button and the genuine timepiece turned ornate with roman numerals. There was nothing around us but trees and the swerve of the road and the rain beating on the roof and the night that came in fast.
Outside of Cleveland, the visibility got so bad I was doing twenty-eight on the freeway. I clicked on the hazards, and we listened to the blinking accompany the sound of the melancholy piano lines. The storm front had settled over the world and darkened the highway.
What? he said.
Who’s the creep now?
Dominions, protectorates, colonies, mandates.
You’ve no idea. India, The Caribbean, Australia—those were the days.
All of the Australian aborigines were destroyed by you English folk.
It was coming down in long slanted curtains of rain. The droplets got heavier, the air thick with humidity.
A blond and her Ferrari whipped past so the car turned smaller and smaller around the curves and was gone. Just then, a storm cloud filtered out the summer sun and a few drops of rain hit the windshield.
Mazeltov to what? Creep.
Something was very wrong.
It was an accident, I said.
You did that on purpose, you lunatic.
He pulled open the glove compartment and threw a slew of napkins onto his lap.
The cappuccino went all over his pants. Then the liquid swooped into my cup and I was holding it again. I slid into the passing lane and pushed the engine to the limit.
The blond was laughing and exhaling smoke from a long cigarette holder. She looked like she was squeezing a mouse to death.
That’s what envelopes are for.
Of course they’re citizens, I said. You’re really pushing the envelope.
But they aren’t citizens, he said.
It was a Ferrari, I could see the insignia above California plates. I zoomed in closer to the blond. She looked smart, and was holding what looked like a glass monocle between her fingers as she smoked. I had this notion I had seen her somewhere before. Or after.
Now I wanted to clock a knuckle in his temple. He was paunchy around the waist, and smelled like ladies perfume.
Reservations, I said. I felt like I was speaking to a child.
Aren’t they kept in zoos? he said.
We do have Native Americans in this country, you know.
Catawissa, he said. What kind of name is that?
I punched the gas, cut around an 18-wheeler smooth and slick. A hot red sportscar was in front of us and a blond was driving. Her hair was blowing in the wind like a wild animal, halfway out of the convertible roof.
Probably just a hill, I said. I was sipping fake gas station cappuccino from a paper cup.
Little Mountain? he said, fumbling with the road Atlas. Are there mountains in Pennsylvania?
We buzzed through Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. The light shimmered over the blur of cottonwood. The entire car squeaked with leather all up and down the highways. It smelled like leather, too, and everyone knows the smell of new leather is the smell of success.
Sometimes I know things, I said, and changed lanes to pass a station wagon filled with balloons and kids.
I liked changing lanes, and the squeak of all that leather. The steering wheel had a leather sleeve, too, with holes so my fingers could really dig in. He kept playing with his pocket watch, a silver beauty that ran from his suit into his pants pocket. Apart from the Lexus, he could have stepped out of the 1920’s.
How did you know? he said.
Chronic neck pain, he said. Sports accident.
He ran his hand over the back of his neck again. I asked him why.
I turned the dial and found Can’t Touch This. Bruce Walter pushed it down to the classical end of things and it was Chopin for miles.
I was used to a frequent change of address. Drain the blood from your body. What nonsense. I tried to swallow the fear The Swede had put into me.
Walter and I left the next morning in his leather-seated Lexus. It smelled like leather, looked like leather, handled like leather. It was not rented, and I respected that.
Chapter 1 — Saturday
Bruce Walter hung up the phone, and offered me a smoke. Then he was holding the receiver against his ear.
Hello? he said, and without breaking eye contact he produced a filterless cigarette. He looked at me a way I had seen men look before and used to my advantage.
I’m terribly sorry, he said into the mouthpiece. The position is no longer available.
The hotel telephone rang, and he swiveled, answered it. A long trail of smoke curled down into the cigarette and he returned it to the pack.
Walter had a room on the 18th floor at the Marriott, and he came through on his promise of the drink. I could hear the music of prosperity, something soft and soulful between my ears.
Manhattan was finally singing my name sweet, not salty.
Bruce Walter was one of those guys with two first names, but that was okay with me. He wore a double-breasted suit with a silver pocket watch on a long silky chain, and somehow he trusted me on sight. I could see it the instant he opened the door and released the deadbolt.
There was a velvet couch and I sat on it while we talked. The whole room stank like gin and a bright new future.
The windows framed a soft orange twilight view of Midtown high-rises along sixth avenue in all their towering, rectangular perfection—if it had been mine I would have had an egg-splattered wall.
This was the hotel room of a man who was living on the other end of life—a successful one with golden borders and cherubs and angels and fawns and sex slaves and money. Loads of money.
Sounds reasonable, I said. Perfectly reasonable.
And you think that living in New York would impress him.
I would have to avoid pushiness to maintain his trust. He had been in love when his friend had gotten married ages ago. Then it hit me—Bruce Walter was a closeted gay man.
He’s an old friend who recently lost his wife. He’s lonely.
Why would you want to do that?
He had a guilty look on his face like he was hiding something.
I have an old friend in Los Angeles whom I haven’t seen for many years. I want to convince him I’ve been living in New York. The way he said Los Angeles and not L.A. was preposterous. He was so British even his pronouns reeked of bergamot.
Walter pulled out that fancy pocket watch and put it up to his ear as if listening to it talk.
Let me in a little, then?
My wish is not to be unsociable. Forgive me.
There was a slant to the way he said destination.
I’ll get you half your pay tomorrow and the other half when we arrive at our destination.
Monday through Friday, 9am to 4:30pm. Why do you really want to know?
What are the hours at this establishment?
What else would you like to know? I said.
I’m not sure I catch your meaning.
What if you don’t have—as you say—feet.
What if I don’t wear—as you say—socks?
The Morgan Library, 36th and sixth avenue, I said. They have a rare book room that will blow the socks right off your feet.
Depends what you like. Modern art? European portraits? Architecture?
Best out-of-the-way museum?
Arabs have fiestas?
Like an Arab fiesta in your mouth.
Is it spicy? I like it spicy.
Three bucks and change.
How much would I spend there?
Nice and moist.
Is the falafel dry or is it moist?
East Village. 1st avenue at 8th street. Down the stairs.
Where is it?
Where can I get the best falafel sandwich in New York?
He kept on with the questions and I gave him the answers. I wanted to swell into the black and stay that way—a cabana in San Juan, and forty hours of leisure each week. If he would fall for the persona, he could be hooked into something bigger. At that, he seemed to understand me for the first time—I had his trust, but wanted more.
What do you have against churches? he said.
I don’t stand in lines.
Waiting is for the dead.
He was hawk-nosed and he smelled like a Moroccan Prince. Something expensive—something French.
Where do the tourists go to waste their time?
The Abyssinian Church.
Why do they go there?
To waste their time.
Walter was mostly interested in my knowledge of Manhattan. Soho, Tribeca, The Meat-Packing District, City Hall. I described it all in detail. Pubs and old-timey speakeasies in Alphabet City, hole-in-the-wall soul food kitchens in Harlem—he wanted to know if I was the real deal, not just a schmuck with a guidebook.
Do you know how to drive a stick shift? he said.
It’s the only thing I drive.
You don’t mind driving? I’d hate to fly over the gorgeous scenery.
I prefer it.
That’s perfect. Now tell me more about New York.
Why do you want to know?
I like to experience a foreign city as if I had lived there my whole life. I like to learn from the locals.
You want the inside scoop.
Yes. I want to know the things New Yorkers know.
That takes a lifetime, friend.
I want the inverse of the tourist experience.
And then you want to drive to L.A.
The city of magic.
I hope you don’t mind equal parts gin and tonic, Walter said, and ran a hand across the back of his neck.
He must have had fifty years on me, the old man—a minor miracle he could even stand up at all. But he was walking and talking both, slick as the grease on his nearly bald, falcon-like skull, and I bet he had a million stashed away somewhere, maybe more than one. Maybe I was going to take it.
So you are from Jackson Heights? His voice was even more British in person.
That’s right, I’m a Queens boy.
Is that not a Spanish-speaking neighborhood? He enunciated every damn consonant.
Sure it is. Ecuadorians, Dominicans, Peruvians, you name it, they can habla.
You don’t strike me as a Spanish-speaker.
I also don’t speak Cantonese.
I left The Rose Parlor before The Swede would catch the notion I had just put everything I had on a losing horse. Marley was twirling his Cuban cigar down to the tip, and when he watched me leave I figured it might be the last time I saw him. I figured he figured I figured it.
I used the payphone in the back of The Rose Parlor and dialed the number.
Hello? said a man with a crisp, British accent. He introduced himself as Bruce Walter. I could smell the money already.
I’m calling about the advertisement I saw in the paper.
Are you a native New Yorker?
Born in Jackson Heights, I said.
Come by the Central Park Marriott for a gin and tonic at 8:30. Room 1806.
I’ll be there.
Oh, I didn’t catch your name, said Bruce Walter.
You’ll catch it soon enough, I said.
I lifted the beer to my lips and then I saw it. The mark of the pint circled the advertisement in the paper: Native New Yorker wanted for cross-country road trip to Los Angeles. Food, lodging and $3000 for driving. Contact Bruce Walter at (212)989-3233.
The Rose Off-Track Betting Parlor was two doors down, behind a veneer of dirty smudged glass accessible only through a door with peeling brown paint to match the optimism of the walls inside. The most cheerful object was a dartboard so old that the cork fell out in the days when Son of Sam was the only talking point.
That part of Hell’s Kitchen really looked like hell, but nobody was cooking. There was more garbage on the street than street. Cats were always fighting. The rodents outnumbered the people—the buildings were mostly burned-out, boarded-up, filthy red brick pre-war five-story walkups that reeked of bankruptcy, foreclosure, high-interest loans, crack-cocaine and other pleasant hobbies.
An old white guy dressed like Colombo holding a Modelo in a brown paper bag nearly slipped off the stool. A group of Dominicans huddled by the jukebox lost their luster. Someone put a dollar in the juke and that crazy new hip-hop did the Humpty Hump. Then, it was Pump Up The Jam, but I had no more jam.
Lady Luck had left the room, the building, the whole damn city. I had struck out on a horse named Swinger. That was it. I was zero.
Swinger picks up again, and it’s Swinger and Jonathan Swift neck and neck in the final stretch—and it’s Jonathan Swift by a hair! Jonathan Swift is one good looking colt.
Swinger in the lead now Lucky Jack tightening around the corner. Swinger going strong on this stretch. Now it’s Lucky Jack and Swinger both in the long sprint home. Lucky Jack and Swinger falling back now, Jonathan Swift coming along the outside cutting in.
The monitors were on full blast and the chumps at the bar were focused. Swinger looked fast and good, but races change quick and nobody knows what will happen until the end.
A race had never looked better, and if my horse Swinger won, it would pay out three times over. That would just about cover what I owed The Swede.
Marley struck a match and puffed a few times until the sweetness of Havana permeated all of Hell’s Kitchen.
Marley was clipping the end off a genuine Cuban. There was a trapezoidal spark in his eye that held my secret. He had held it before, a silence over my latitude and longitude.
Hey, Marley, I said and leaned over the bar, don’t let The Swede know I’m here.
I knew the cashier, Marley, would not tell the Swede if I had to leave town in a hurry. He was classy like that.
The Rose Off-Track Betting Parlor was my lucky spot.
I had won a fistful of dough, but anyone knows what happened next. The Swede kept me thirsty, kept fronting me cash at twelve percent interest accrued daily. All those twelve percents back to back added up to something ugly.
I owed The Swede big—a nauseating sum that dug its claws deep into the core of my muscle tissue.
All I had was a newspaper, a pint of beer, and a horse named Swinger in the lead.
Back then I was sick with the debt, and the name Bruce Walter meant nothing to me.
Thus concludes a 3-part fictional story entitled The Man I Never Met. Read part one, and then two, if you have only started here.
Image © 2015 by Beatriz Albuquerque.
© 2015 by David Moscovich, all rights reserved.