He was tired. That's about all he could say. Anyone who asked, got that answer from him. It was tough thinking of anything beyond the next espresso at the corner cafe. He'd have a cookie or a piece of cake with that, please. Yeah, for here. He'd sit down with the plate, and the fork would make the satisfying sound he thought he needed. He didn't want to have to carry the thing in a bag back to work only to have to use some plastic fork rummaged out of one of the coffee station drawers. No fun. Today he'd look around, out the window to the street and decide for once he felt relaxed enough just to eat and drink and forget about looking like he was reading something. Better for the stomach anyway. Too good to be true today, that cake. But into the third bite, he heard a little voice behind him. "Hi, Henry." It took a second to adjust because he was eating the cake, but he finally understood that it was one of her kids. He couldn't tell which, but he knew he needed to prepare for the inevitable. He took his sunglasses off the table and put them in his lap in case she tried to bend them in half. He looked down at the table once more and decided the cake probably wouldn't be too dangerous. The coffee could present problems though. All he could do was clutch it. "Quite vulnerable," he thought. But before he raised it for another drink he decided he wasn't going to let her control his actions anymore. It had just been too long. People could change, become reasonable again. Immediately after finishing that thought, she was there.
"So how are you?" she said. How could it have been anything else? For all the irrelevance that question bespoke, that's actually what she said. Lest you get the wrong impression though, she didn't say it in the smug way or the martyred way you may be thinking. She paused long before saying it, and could barely manage the words when her mouth finally opened. This, after a few twitches of the head and two placings of hands in and out of her pockets.
He didn't want to answer. What to say? "Well, extremely bad, now that you're here." No, that was far too big a risk. Not answer at all? Just as risky. Henry hadn't seen his problem for some time now, and he wasn't sure what to expect.
"So, how are you?" And her face immediately turned red. He was sure her palms were sweating too, along with several other parts of her body. "Yep, nothing's changed. Still insane," he thought. "Time to go." But, of course, he dared not move.
"Pretty good," he said. "How about you?"
"You got the last piece of cake?" She said with her German-accented eyes bugging out a little.
"Yeah. What? You wanted one? Uh, actually, no. There was one left after I ordered mine. Somebody else must've taken the last one." He looked around the room briefly for someone with another piece of cake he could warn, but figured she probably wouldn't give anyone but him any kind of verbal assault for ordering a piece of cake. Truthfully, he had gotten the last piece. But after his third sweet bite he couldn't very well offer it to her. Besides he needed it even more now that she was here, in front of him.
He waited for her next move. He remembered the security guard at work telling him always to be watching her hands. Always, always. His colleagues too, had filled his head with everything they could muster.
"Henry, how're you doing? Listen, I'm sorry about what happened. Aren't you a little scared to go out? I just don't know what to think. But you know, I hate to say anything like this, but have you talked to the police at all yet? You know, just to get it on record . . . in case."
"In case what?"
"Well, you know . . . Fatal Instinct, whatever that movie is. You know, man. I-will-not-be-ignored! Ha, I'm sorry, I know it's not funny. It's just, you know, I don't know. Listen, I'm sorry. I'd better get back to work now."
Or the other end of the spectrum.
"Well, Henry, was it worth it?"
"What do you mean?"
"Come on, man. How was it? Was she a fuckin' animal or what?"
"What? Are you implying that we had sex? I never even touched her."
"Really?" And then the usual yeah-right-I-don't-believe-it-for-a-second look.
At the moment, this whole other end of the spectrum did happen to be crossing Henry's mind as he glanced down briefly at her unneccessarily unbuttoned blouse. "Maybe I should have," he thought. "What would things be like now if I had? What am I talking about? I never wanted to anyway. Too tired now. If she was going to lash out now her kids would see it. She's not going to do anything. I'm really tired of this." Then she put her hands to her eyes and her face turned red again.
Back out on the street an old man had started dancing the old soft shoe to the accompaniment of nothing but the traffic on the street. Henry could see it happening through the window. A small crowd had gathered to watch, as they made their way to the early movie at the theater next door. It's the kind of thing anybody would notice out a cafe window, so of course he looked. Didn't even think about it.
"What are you looking at?" she hoared. But the dancer held his gaze for the moment, and he forgot to answer her. Maybe it seemed too obvious. Everybody was looking. It had to be the first time anybody had seen a man dancing in this neighborhood. He was very good, too, a milk-chocolate-brown man who looked to be in his eighties. That's what the wrinkles on his face said anyway. He had the moves of someone forty years younger and probably had quite a few more back then as well. His body looked as fluid as ever, turning a twist on the balls of his spatted saddle shoes. He hadn't needed to put down any sand either. He danced on a newly-laid red brick sidewalk with its own coat of blue-gray mortar sand put down the day before to help settle the job. He might just have been walking by when the new mortar sand made his foot slip the right way into a memory he hadn't caught in years. Who knew? Strange though, watching the old shoe on brand new brick.
"What are you looking at?" she yelled again, and Henry snapped out of it just in time to see her picking up his cake and pushing it into his face. "So much for a pleasant evening," he thought with a short gasp of shocked air. Then he wanted to say: "You fucking bitch, can't you respect the fact that I was eating that goddamn cake?" But that would have made people turn away from the dancer to see his face. Instead he tilted his head, let the cake drop back to the plate, and fingered the frosting off slowly and silently. Besides, she was delusional. He couldn't afford the risk. People were sitting all around them here, ready to take her side simply because if they looked, they'd see the accidental permanent smirk on his face that mistakenly told strangers he was some kind of an asshole. So instead, he licked the frosting off his fingers as she finally sat down at the table with him. His eyes would no longer stray from her hands.
"Yes?" A long moment passed before he understood that she couldn't say anything more. So he offered her some cake.
"Oh, yes. Could I?"
"Yes. Here." And he pushed the plate over.
"Yes?" And then she turned to tell her kids in German to go outside and watch the dancer, but they had already gone out, even before she had put the cake in his face.
"If something should happen to me, Will you? Will you take care of the kids?"
"Ya, I mean, you know, if they do something to me."
"What do you mean? You mean if they take you away?"
"Ya, you know, it could happen. I don't know. Very soon. What would you do?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean if I left them here in the cafe. Would you take them? You know, I tell them already to go with you. You know, if I am not here. I want you to be the guardian what makes the decisions for them. So. OK?"
"Well, um, what about your husband?"
"No! He is not! Never. He tells me he take Heidi back to Ethiopia. I know she not come back ever. He say they like girls there. I know, it is the condition there."
Henry had heard this before, back before the breakdown.
Elke had come from a small town in East Germany by way of seven years in Moscow, where she had met her comrade emigre, the Ethiopian Hassan. They met in their cooking school, fucked in their free time, and had two children in two years. Elke refused to have Russian children, so before each birth she would go back to East Berlin to deliver a baby into her parents' arms. Each time she would leave a newborn with them and force herself to return to Moscow for more money. But, in time, "the condition"---that of the regime she had grown up with, under, hidden---began to become an inescapable darkness for her, and she began to feel everything she and her husband were working for meant nothing if they could not live with their children. So when the wall came down, Elke and Hassan grabbed the kids and headed for the States, as fast as they could convert their only worthless money into some kind of way out. "The condition," though, seemed to follow.
"So what would you do?" Henry thought for a moment. It would be very bad to say the wrong thing.
"I'd give them right back to you," he offered, then reconsidered and tried to be firm. "No, I can't take care of your kids. I---"
"What! Why not?"
"I, I just don't live in the kind of situation where I could really help them out."
"But, how can you do dis plo rig randa meeeeerooooon!" And her voice began rising with frantic detachment. "Dee mooo maray, ay amoan ooou mine mowou ou oou!" And now a couple of women at the next table were ready to beat the shit out of him for making her cry. And if they'd been listening 10 seconds earlier, they'd have heard the words "the kids", inciting them to extract his checkbook and credit cards after beating the shit out of him, so they could give her all his money as he lay bloodied on the cafe's parquet floor. They hadn't been listening long enough though, so they only glared. Henry felt like telling them: "Fuck off, it's a chemical thing, OK?" Or maybe "This happens to be a disease. Could you please fuck off?" This was not forthcoming because Elke's pitch had reached the point where it was about to get physical, her hands reaching toward his neck. He had to stop it. And then there it was. The guy at the table on the other side, whom he hadn't noticed until now, got up and walked over to the table, as Henry's hands held her trembling wrists, and, ignoring all common sense advice to the contrary, actually said "Why don't you let go of her, sir?"
There Henry sat struggling, not believing things had already gone this far. Elke's wrists were shaking violently in his hands, and the old man was still dancing out the window, and now a beat cop had walked up to the crowd to watch the show, and the whole world had just turned into this one terrible little scene. Henry could do nothing then but let go and get up from the table to try and show her sudden hero that Elke had started the whole thing. But rather than lunge at him again as she might have done some other time, she slumped back in the chair, whimpering her craziness all over the table.
Henry sped out the door, looking back through the window once more to check that she wasn't coming after him. All he could see was her would-be savior getting the rest of the cake in his face. Henry was given only a split second of satisfaction, though, because he was also in the process of knocking over the dancer from having looked the other way. The cop of course felt it necessary to let loose with a "Hey, buddy, why don't you watch where you're going?" But instead of what Henry should have done, which was to keep on going and not look back, he stopped, confused, and began helping the old dancer off the sidewalk back to his feet. He had forgotten her children were somewhere watching all this.
Both the children had been conditioned to cry loudly at the sight of police---usually to Elke herself, pleading with her to leave whatever house or building in which she happened to be trespassing. Usually something like "Please, please. Let's get out of here before you get arrested. Please. The police are coming. Don't you know that? Mommy, please." And she would yell back at them in German to shut them up as she tried to explain to some random citizen that she was only looking for Henry. She had just received urgent word from thin air that he was being held against his will with his mouth taped shut and his arms tied to a chair in this very apartment, or in this hotel room, or in this back office at the mall, or in this men's room stall. She would be utterly convinced. And the unsuspecting person who had just answered the door of some, no doubt, unremarkable first-floor apartment or small storefront dentist's office in some average section of town, thinking he'd probably have to shoo away a Johoveh's Witness or Greenpeace canvasser at most, would instead receive the surprise of a haggard, sunken-eyed, henna-haired German woman with two hysterical children at her sides. And when the person would say, with mounting concern, "I'm sorry, I have no idea what you're talking about, but I must ask you to please look elsewhere," Elke would invariably push right past the dweller and begin searching the rooms as her kids tugged hard at her coat, crying for her to stop. She would not, and as the three of them would be shouting at each other in German, the poor tenant would be dialing 911 for the first time in his life, thinking that very thought to himself. "I've never had to do this before, ever. Is it going to work?" And, the police would sometimes even be there inside five minutes with a strong dose of adrenaline coursing through their blood. They would enter to the shrill screams of a military language they could not understand, pull their weapons, and throw her out the door.
So here the kids were again, crying in front of a new cop, only this time without Elke. And all this cop wants to do about anything is get the dancer back to his feet and dancing again. So he just looks at the kids for a second and back to Henry.
"These your kids?"
To which Henry replies, "Uh, no, I've never
seen them before," and starts off down the sidewalk, leaving them there
to decide whether they should run and find their mother or wait there
and turn her in, once and for all.
Back at work, Henry moved some papers on his desk over to another pile, capped an uncapped pen, and thought about one of the three regular neighborhood panhandlers he'd seen during his walk/half-run-looking-back from the cafe. Had she started out like Elke? Had she also raised her kids to some point, losing them and herself somewhere along the way?
Henry knew that Elke was very close to being arrested again. He could either truly offer his help and suffer the consequences of letting her know his new phone number, or take the advice any sane adult would give him: tell her to get lost and go for the restraining order. He needed to finish some work, though, so he uncapped the pen again and began outlining his presentation, shutting the afternoon's events completely out of his mind for the rest of the night.
By eleven-thirty he was ready to go home with something solid accomplished, having worked five hours straight on half a piece of chocolate cake. He wanted more food. The only places open this late though, were that same damn cafe and the old grease factory Henry and his colleagues called the deli down the other way. He guessed he'd have to take the grease and risk a stomach ache rather than eat a day-old bagel at the cafe. There was a small chance she'd be back there still, looking for him.
As he walked out of the building he thought about the injunction his firm had finally sought against Elke after she had stormed the lobby, one too many times, demanding to see if Henry was in some kind of trouble. The last time she did it, there happened to be clients taking an office tour, guided by the CEO himself. It just didn't look good. After that, Henry had been instructed to lock himself in his office with a newly-installed deadbolt upon warning from the receptionist, and wait for the police to take her away. The firm had also been advised by its lawyers to have the receptionist announce over the intercom that "Elke Werner is in the building." The humor was not lost on most of the employees.
She never did seem to violate the injunction---no less than five hundred feet from the building in any direction. And Henry began to wonder why she hadn't tried some night to be there when he came out the front door to walk to the subway, try to follow him to his house.
"No one around here tonight," he thought, as he felt himself strolling down to the all-night deli on the corner. When he got home it was midnight, but if he had gone to sleep right away his stomach would have told him where to go around 3 am, so he stayed up instead, reading a magazine.
Since his divorce almost a year earlier he'd taken to late night reading. He had let his wife have the TV, telling her it would remind him too much of her to keep it. TV had become their favorite thing to do together, and he didn't think he could bear to look at it anymore.
Henry looked up from the magazine, startled, thinking he'd heard something just below the window outside. Deciding it was some stray animal, he looked across the room to where the TV had been and started to think about his first and only divorce. He would never have befriended Elke during his marriage. He'd have still been coming straight home after work every night, settling down to some drama his wife always watched, just content to be with someone who wasn't going to ask for the progress report on the Atlanta project or buttonhole him about some client opportunity he'd need to work the weekend for.
Coincidentally, Elke was going through her own divorce. She had been practicing her English for the court appearance when Henry just happened to be there. Some afternoon, as he was walking through one of the kitchenettes at work with a bundle of copies in his hand, he saw Elke holding up a paper cone of water from the water cooler. She was saying "cup or cone" out loud to herself as he put the copies down and poured some warm brown water into a company anniversary mug.
"I'd say it's a cup because it's holding water."
"Yes, but other things can hold water. Old tires, for example. You would not call this a cup, yes?"
"Yes, but you're drinking from it."
"No, I'm not."
"Oh. Yes. Well, OK. Without quibbling, I'd say---"
"What is that? Quibbling." And their conversation had begun. How could he have guessed then that this same innocent, young woman would be attacking him at his desk one Friday evening a year later, and that it would take four other people to restrain her as he ran to the other end of the building to sit shaking in a conference room, waiting it out. She was fired the next Monday, and a whole chain of events had been set in motion. That was the end of the casual English lessons in the hallways and the beginning of his cautionary hiding.
Henry laid his head back on the chair and decided with a yawn that it was time for bed.
Over the next week he performed beautifully at work, delivering the presentation he had seemed to pull from mid-air that night after the cafe incident with such poise and passion that the prospective clients had signed, on the spot, three agreements Henry's job it was to secure. This feat under certain duress was all the more remarkable because he had managed to sign them even before the second and third cursory meetings at his firm's expense. Henry's VP went so far as to embrace him in the men's room after the meeting.
"What's gotten into you, man? That was truly amazing."
"Guess I just got lucky today, Jack."
"Whatever it is, we have got to keep this up. I don't see any choice but to give you the lead on this one. In fact the client basically just insisted on it." Henry answered with the usual I'll give it my best shot and you're damn right you will, and thought maybe things were finally looking up for a change.
"Fuck the rest of it. If I can make this happen, I'll be able to buy another wife in no time," he thought, kidding himself with a splash of cold water on his face.
"Henry, what are you doing tomorrow night? We're having a little thing out on the Vineyard. I've already invited the client overnight for the weekend. Why don't you and your wife join us out there. No business, of course, just to get acquainted. I think it'd be good if you could come."
"Well, Jack, I don't know if you remember, but my wife and I divorced last year."
"Oh, yeah, right. Well, you must have another one stashed away somewhere, right? What about that German secretary who attacked you. Hahahahahahaha. Come on, Henry, you must be seeing someone else by now. Get right back on the horse and ride. Don't you think? Anyway, come down no matter what. If you have someone you're seeing, bring her down. If not, just bring yourself. Not ideal, of course, but really, no matter. We need you on this one, dammit." The rest of the day became a blurry series of both envious remarks from colleagues and almost too hearty pats on the back.
That evening, as he turned the corner to his street, he looked down the block to where his door stood and noticed two tiny figures who seemed to be dancing around a taller, stationary figure. As he approached, what he realized made him want to start running the other way. It looked very much as if the old dancer was giving a lesson to Elke's kids, right there on the sidewalk in front of his apartment. He wanted then to tell himself that that couldn't possibly be what he was seeing. Not in this neighborhood, all the way across town. So he drew closer to stare, thinking stress had played a part in this sudden hallucination. When he looked at the man's face, he thought he'd never been this close to an hallucination before. And at the same time, the tiny voices said "Hello, Henry." But instead of looking down at them, he retrained his eyes on the lock in his front door and felt for the right key in his pocket. No time now to think, he needed to find some clean clothes before tomorrow for the Vineyard. Never mind not having a girl to take with him. If he missed the boat in any way, he'd have an extremely difficult Monday.
With the door slammed behind his back, he held out his hand to see how much it had begun to shake. He looked out the window then, and they were gone.
Hours later, sitting in his reading chair, he heard the noise in the bushes again. This time though, there were voices attached to the rustling. A little urgency came through, not quite piercing, but tingling his ears. Because he knew for certain then, that the voices were those of her kids, in the bushes, in front of his apartment.
He looked at his palm filling rapidly with beads of sweat and decided the only course of action would be an extremely alcoholic drink.
The next morning, Saturday, he readied himself for the ferry. Uncharacteristically, he decided to pack a swimsuit even though it was already October. He reasoned there might be a pool or even a hot tub he hadn't been told about, where people like his VP would not likely be caught naked with clients. Tennis clothes, a must, even though he had no doubles partner to bring. May have to lose a set of singles to any number of more important guests. As he climbed into the shower, blocking the hot water with both his hands, he thought about what else he absolutely could not forget to bring. "What kind of booze?" he thought, and grabbed the soap. Just then, a loud crash and breaking glass in the hall, followed by small entreaties entwined with a louder and louder and louder shrieking. And there she was again, in all her glazed over and panting glory, right in the steaming doorway of the bathroom. She had what looked like a butter knife in her hand. He thought nothing and ripped open the shower curtain, driving past the three of them, throwing a towel around his dripping body. He ran into the hallway, and she followed trying to get a piece of his soaped-up skin that only slipped through her fingers. She grabbed at the towel to pull him back, but he came out of it instead, not having any idea what to do, except run free. The next thing he knew, he was four blocks away, completely nude, crouched behind a potted hedge in front of a restaurant. The police were there inside five minutes, and he could not speak as they loaded him into the cruiser.
Some time later he dreamt of the dancer on the street. In a painful sort of slow motion, Henry could see him all the way across the street. But when he would try to take a step to walk over, he'd find his legs immobile, cemented to the sidewalk. He would lift his foot and the cement block of the sidewalk would lift with it, only enough to get his body an inch closer with each step to make his way across the street to see the dancer close up. The same cop was already there, tapping away his own feet, carefree, to the sounds of the old man's shoes sliding across the brick. Henry stopped to think, still only two-and-a-half steps into his journey, getting him no closer to the only mission that seemed to matter anymore: whether to press onward in his cement shoes to watch the dance , take pleasure and insight from the slow, richly colored shapes and sounds on the other side, or to give up and watch from where he stood, allowing himself what he had always assumed to be the necessity of cover. As he began to turn his head as fast as the dream would allow, to check how many people were watching his legs lift the sidewalk as he stepped, he saw the entire crowd of people around the dancer suddenly turn en masse to face him, confront his inability to step along to their place, as if they were all telling him without words that being scrutinized would be the only possibility left to him, even long after some DPW worker had been summoned to chip his feet out of the concrete with deafening jackhammer blows. Henry, however, could not be absolutely sure of the crowd's intentions, when instantly the question ceased to matter at all. He had woken up.
The nurse was there in the room. As she propped him up and rearranged his pillow, she told him kindly that he must have been very tired, because he had fallen asleep on his lunch tray, and had landed in his chocolate cake.