by Gary Inbinder
Max Niemand ogled a T.V. commercial featuring a bikini-clad model cavorting on a white-sanded beach. The palm encircled, surf-washed strand encroached upon the fading fantasy world of his sixty-seventh year. But his sclerotic imagination failed him — he was stuck in drab reality like a sugar ant in a blob of molasses.
The doorbell rang. Niemand flinched, spilling a few drops of morning coffee on his fly. He grimaced in response to the intrusion while trying to blot his splotched pants with a paper napkin.
A semi-recluse, he had an apprehensive reaction to everyday intrusions — knocks, doorbells, ringtones — a conditioned reflex. An incident from Niemand’s past might have been the root cause of his anxiety, or at least a contributing factor.
When he was seventeen, Niemand had answered a timid knock at the front door of the third floor apartment he shared with his widowed mother. The time was early afternoon on a weekday. His mother was working; Niemand was studying for final exams, making use of the brief break between school and his part-time job as a janitor’s assistant.
He opened the door a crack and saw a young woman on the landing, lit dimly by dusty rays slanting through a sooty skylight. Niemand recognized the girl as his downstairs neighbor. He associated her with a pungent odor; her landing reeked of boiled cabbage and cat pee.
She was nineteen, puny but obviously pregnant. He noticed tears dribbling from her dark brown eyes, one of which had been pummeled into a purplish slit. She wore a housecoat, scrubby as a penitent’s sackcloth. Her stringy hair hung loosely down her bony shoulders; blood trickled from a swollen upper lip.
She pleaded with Niemand for the use of a telephone to call her mother. Her unemployed husband had given the girl one last beating before abandoning her, their one year-old boy and unborn child. Their eviction notice had been posted, their utilities cut off.
Compassion interfered with Niemand’s judgment; he let her make the call without asking whether or not it was long distance, or determining if she could pay.
Later, when the girl’s mother came for her battered child, she thanked Niemand’s mom and reimbursed her fifty cents.
That didn’t spare Niemand a scolding. “Don’t do that again,” his mother warned. “So it was a toll call and they paid, but they could have been thieves, tricking their way in. And she might have called long distance and stuck me with the bill. ‘Love your neighbor’ is a fine Sunday school sentiment for those who can afford it. Never forget — the world is full of swindlers and their dupes, and I won’t always be here to protect you.”
Niemand wondered, to himself of course, what their flat contained that was worth stealing, but thieves often target their impoverished neighbors. It’s simply a matter of proximity. And he ought to have demanded payment up front for the call. He promised his mother that if a neighbor ever made such a dubious request, he’d surely turn her away.
The door bell rang again. “Damn,” Niemand muttered. He put down his coffee, got up from the kitchen table, walked to the front door and peered through the eyepiece. He anticipated the worst — scruffy, surly youths peddling magazine subscriptions, snotty urchins scamming for bogus charities, or perhaps an importunate neighbor like the battered, pregnant girl. What he saw through the tiny peephole surprised him.
The intruder was a casually but tastefully dressed young woman in her late twenties. Far from threatening, her demeanor seemed placid and patient as she waited for Niemand to answer the door. And she was exquisitely beautiful.
Niemand was a moderately successful writer who had openly criticized the popular culture, a throw-back to an earlier era. Unlike many of his peers who had clawed their way up from the socio-economic dregs to bourgeois respectability, he harbored no class resentment. On the contrary, the thing he hated and feared most was the poverty he had escaped and from which he had never felt secure. Like Hugo’s Valjean, Niemand always glanced over his shoulder, on the watch for an implacable Javert who sought to arrest him, chain him and drag him back to the prison hulk of his youth.
If appearances were not deceiving, the woman in the hallway was nothing like Javert. On the contrary, she resembled a Botticelli goddess or the commercial Nereid, springtime personified. Her otherworldly charm appealed to Niemand; it was the deciding factor that made him unlock and open the chained door, if only a cautious crack. “Yes, what do you want?” he asked.
The woman looked up at the suspicious blue eye confronting her. Smiling shyly, she replied, “Oh, I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Niemand. You are Max Niemand, aren’t you?”
Sweat dampened his armpits, his mouth dried and his stomach knotted. The promise he had made to his mother fifty years earlier pierced his perception of this chance encounter like a lancet digging into a boil. How does she know my name? he thought. She could be scamming. Despite his misgivings he said, “I’m Niemand. What do you want?”
The woman held up a book with a picture of a much younger Niemand on the back of the dust jacket. He recognized the first edition of his early essays, long out of print. “I’m your downstairs neighbor. I’d read your book in college, and I recognized you from your picture. I asked Mrs. Minkus (the assistant building manager, a notorious busy-body) and she said you were the Max Niemand. I’ve wanted to meet you ever since, if only to tell you how much I enjoyed your work.”
Niemand melted in response to her flattery, like a lump of rancid butter in sunlight. And like most creative people, he had a weakness for those who complimented his work, without regard as to whether or not such praise was well-informed or sincere. “Thank you, Miss, ah...”
“Schwartz — Blanche Schwartz.” The young woman continued smiling warmly while fondling the book.
“Miss Schwartz. Now, if you’ll excuse me I was just—”
“I was hoping,” she interrupted; “I was hoping we could spend a little time together, when you’re not busy, of course. I thought we could discuss one of your essays that’s puzzled me. If you don’t mind, that is.”
Her request startled him. He questioned her motives. Did beautiful young women stalk old men of letters? Niemand had had a friend, a retired professor in his late seventies, who had fallen into the clutches of an unscrupulous young woman, a former student. To make a long story short, she had wormed her way into the old man’s life by playing on his vanity — she said she “loved” his lectures.
The woman moved in with the elderly academic, got his power of attorney, emptied his bank account, sold off his investments, mortgaged his real property, cashed his pension and social security checks, stole his identity and beat him to a pulp for good measure. Then she ran off with her boyfriend (or was it a girlfriend? Niemand couldn’t remember), leaving her victim a doddering, slobbering ruin, who mercifully died soon thereafter.
Was Blanche Schwartz such a woman? Niemand didn’t know, and he did not intend to find out. On the other hand, he was charmed by her beauty and somewhat intrigued. What was it in his writing that had ‘puzzled’ her? At any rate, he was not about to offend someone who at least purported to admire his writing. He would be wary; he would not admit her to his apartment, but he was not averse to spending a little time with her in a public place.
He undid the chain and opened the door. “All right, perhaps we could meet at the coffee shop on the other side of the park, some time when it’s convenient.”
Her smile in response was dazzling. “How about now? It’s a lovely day.”
Her seemingly innocent enthusiasm disarmed him. He saw no harm in what she proposed; the walk and fresh air would do him good. He didn’t mind a brief discussion about some of his old writings, as long as they avoided the personal. He glanced at his watch, and then looked up. “All right. Give me five minutes and I’ll meet you in the lobby.”
The woman nodded her agreement, turned, clutched Niemand’s book to her breast and walked down the hallway to the elevator. Niemand gazed after her. How pretty she is, he thought. Then he frowned, closed the door and went to the bathroom where he studied his tired, gray reflection in the mirror. “I’m no fool,” he muttered as a thin stream of urine trickled past his swollen prostate.
* * *
They relaxed in white-painted cast-iron chairs opposite one another at a small round table on the sidewalk fronting the coffee shop. A yellow striped awning provided shade from the late morning sun; an occasional mild gust fluttered the awning and kicked up dust in the curbside gutter. A small blanket of clouds drifted overhead, for a moment shadowing the surroundings in deeper tones of old gold and forest green. A ray slanted through the cloud bar highlighting a clamorous flight of sparrows that had invaded a nearby tree, where they perched ominously as in Hitchcock’s The Birds.
There was little traffic on the side-streets forming a square that separated them from the park. The green patch was empty except for a small Tai Chi group performing their exercises.
Niemand observed Blanche. She spoke softly yet clearly, while gesturing with her tapered fingers. The gestures provided subtle animation in counterpoint to her pervading stillness, adding to her attraction. And there was her intrusive beauty; it breached his consciousness like an irritating grain of sand violates an oyster, giving birth to a pearl.
For the most part, she spoke and he listened. For several minutes she made small talk by way of polite introduction, since she had had the advantage, through Niemand’s writings and his biography, to know much more about him than he did about her. The personal could not be avoided, but Niemand was so enthralled by his companion that he didn’t mind.
In short order, he learned that her parents were divorced (they lived on opposite sides of the country); her mother had remarried to a man Blanche disliked; she had one sibling, a younger brother in college; she had a good job as a marketing executive; and there was a young man.
“Excuse me,” Niemand broke in. “You said there was something about my work that puzzled you.” He didn’t want to seem impolite, but she had aroused his curiosity. The author had not solicited this particular reader’s attention, but now that he had it he wanted very much to know what she thought of his work.
Blanche flushed a little. “Oh, I have been going on. Please forgive me. I wanted to talk to you about your essay on love.”
Niemand searched his memory. He had written the essay thirty years earlier, and it had been favorably received. He recalled little else. Nevertheless, he said, “What did you find puzzling? Perhaps I can elucidate.”
She opened her book to a marked page and quoted: “Erotic love is biologically determined, part instinctive possessiveness and part romantic illusion, those elements varying only in proportion according to the time, place and individual.” She put down the book and fixed his eyes with a wistful smile. “Do you really believe that?”
He stared vacantly for a moment before responding, recalling what he had written about the “loving subject” and the “beloved object.” Then: “Yes, that’s correct.” He paused again to study her expression before continuing, but he could read nothing in her placid smile.
As a rule, Niemand discussed his work in general terms, avoiding the particular, but for some reason he now felt the need to embrace the personal, if only for the purpose of a hypothetical illustration. “You’re a very attractive young woman, a member of a privileged category, and I don’t mean that as flattery. It’s simply a fact. Your attractiveness is biologically determined — the fit breed with the fit to produce the best offspring. And once such a couple has paired off, they each guard their privileged possession jealously. Of course, this biologically determined process has acquired a veil of romantic illusion that varies somewhat according to culture and the individual.” Niemand sipped some coffee, satisfied with his response.
“Is that all there is? Don’t you think that there’s something transcendent about love? That it provides us with a glimpse of the eternal?”
Niemand groaned mentally while forcing a smile. She threatened to go Platonic on him. Worse yet, she might be a religious fanatic seeking converts. He anticipated her turning the conversation from sexual attraction and mutually advantageous bonding to agapé.
Niemand would not be lured in that direction. He would play the man who gleefully burst the little girl’s balloon. “I was writing about sex, Miss Schwartz, not metaphysics or religion. Rather than referencing the dialogue between Socrates and Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, I studiously avoided it, as you should know from reading my work.
“Beauty might be the path to something that seems eternal, and I emphasize seems. The perfect form — or God, if you prefer — is merely a projection of our temporal human ideals onto an imagined infinite object of desire. In our imagination, love of beauty might appear to lead us toward that object.
“On the other hand, beauty might draw one to destruction as the attractive, carnivorous plant lures the unwary fly. Beauty might be a mask, a veil of illusion, but our knowledge is limited to appearances. There’s nothing behind the veil; what we see is what we get. The only realm beyond the senses is fantasy land, the world of unicorns and fairies.” He might have added surf-romping, bikini-clad nereids, but he thought he had said enough.
Blanche frowned, but her changed expression added poignancy that made her even more attractive, like the sun partly occluded by clouds in an otherwise clear sky, or a Schubertian modulation to the dark minor key that inevitably returns to sunny major. “Have you always believed that — even when you were young?”
Her persistence on this subject irritated Niemand; he now regretted their meeting. She had intruded on his complacency, questioning his well-founded opinions and raising doubts, and she had done so without argument. All that was required for this disruption was her radiant presence, and that irked him no end.
“I was young once, Miss Schwartz, and I fell in love. Fell is the word, because that’s what happens to us — we succumb to a biological imperative while falling under the spell of an illusion. We’re slaves to both our fancy and our baser instincts and we justify that slavery with romantic rubbish. But I suppose we must do so to continue breeding and perpetuating the race — if you think humanity is worth perpetuating.”
She answered Niemand’s cynicism with the sweetest smile, raising his exasperation level to near boiling point. And what she said next gave him no relief. “Thank you so much, Mr. Niemand. You’ve answered my questions, and I’m no longer confused about your essay. Now, I’m afraid I’ve imposed upon you for too long. But before I leave, I’d like to ask one little favor.”
Niemand raised his eyebrows. That’s it, he thought. The whole thing was a set-up. She’s going to ask for a contribution to some ‘worthy cause.’ Well, she’ll get the surprise of her life when I tell her what she can do with her starving orphans. Nevertheless, he controlled himself if only for the sake of his reputation. She was a reader, after all. “Tell me what you want, Miss Schwartz, and if it’s reasonable I’ll try to accommodate you.”
“Would you please autograph your book? It would mean so much to me.”
Is that all she wants? Fine, that’s no skin off my nose. “I’d be pleased to,” he said. Blanche handed him the book and he inscribed the flyleaf.
She retrieved the book, read the inscription and smiled. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Niemand. Your signature has made this first edition a valuable collector’s item. I do hope you won’t mind my auctioning it for a worthy cause? You see, I volunteer at the battered women’s shelter, and we’re holding an auction this weekend to raise funds.”
She had conquered him without a struggle. Niemand had fallen for his importunate neighbor cloaked within an illusion of beauty; decades of cynical scribbling had been subverted. He had been duped into an act of charity.
He no longer identified with Jean Valjean. Rather, he felt like the defeated Javert after he had released his quarry. If the curbside had been the Seine embankment, Niemand would have plunged to his death like Hugo’s morose policeman. But Niemand exited the scene without a splash or ripple. “Of course, you may auction it. Do as you please.”
Blanche thanked him again and wished him a wonderful day. He watched as she crossed the street and entered the park. Her slender figure floated past the silently gesturing Tai Chi group; they appeared to be saluting her, honoring her victory. Then she turned into the shade of a row of tall trees. He continued observing until her mirage-like image dissolved in golden sunlight diffused through the green thicket of leafy branches.
* * *
Niemand retreated to the wasteland of his flat. He locked the door, drew the curtains and turned off the phone. His mother’s ghost loomed menacingly. He crawled into a dark closet, where he hid in abject terror.
Copyright © 2012 by Gary Inbinder