I was off the grid. It was not easy, but then again I didn’t expect it to be. There are the usual steps; no regular cell phone, no home phone, no credit cards, no bank accounts. You cannot have a driver’s license. Everything is cash. Social security is a problem but I sold my future checks to a friend, the money goes into a trust I set up but he is the sole beneficiary. We used an actuarial table for the value of the stream of income. He will figure out his own taxes. He paid me in cash. As for my taxes, I guess I am a tax fraud but if I am successfully off the grid then it doesn’t matter, does it?
You have to live somewhere. You could own property which is not such a good idea, so you need a lease. For that you need identification. I asked a client of mine how to do that. He smiled but knew not to ask me questions. I got a dummy license which I do not use, a dummy social security card which I do not use, and a dummy birth certificate. That and cash gets you a nice apartment.
Then there are taxes. Guess what; if you don’t make any reportable money you don’t owe anyone a tax return. Well, that seemed dumb, I have enough money to live on, I think forever, but to not make an investment return seemed dumb. There are people who offered to invest it for me and they do not know my real name, but those kinds of people are not perhaps the most reliable; and who do you complain to if they decide they forgot your name? If you don’t want your new name to become a grid-identity, you can’t really go make investments, although I did find a broker who said he would invest in stocks for me, making sure there were no dividends, and I did not have to sell them unless it became more important to get the money than to stay off the tax rolls. I am thinking about that.
Family and friends are a real problem up front. My wife is gone, but there are the kids. When I explained my plan, my great experiment, they got really unnerved. Then they got angry that I was disowning them and disowning their children. I can understand that. I feel badly about that. Maybe someday I will reappear in their lives but right now I think I have spent my whole life living for others and with what time I have left, let me do what I want. If I die and cannot be found and thus they never know, then I guess I will just disappear into the ether. Since I loved my own parents and damned near never visited their gravesites, and since people get cremated and their ashes are dropped in the ocean, then I figure it is okay to leave my kids with my memory alone. And if someone doesn’t know you already, a stranger or even say your great grandchild, well so what?
So I gave my kids enough money to send my grandchildren to college, and they will have to live with it.
Friends and colleagues? I told a couple, who thought I was crazy. When I disappeared I bet the rest of them thought I was crazy. I can live with that. They do what they want, I do what I want.
Fingerprints! I have one of those TSA passes, they have my fingerprints. I bet in the past I gave prints for something else also. I don’t plan to get arrested, and the American fascist state still hasn’t gotten to the point where everyone needs to be fingerprinted, so I think I am safe.
My face. I decided not to do surgery, that would leave someone who can make the link from my past to me. I used the opportunity to lose 80 pounds. I worked out to tighten up, as much as an old guy can tighten up what has already drooped down and got ugly. I went to lenses, threw out glasses. The lenses change my eye color too; isn’t science amazing. Noted for my bushy hair that survived all these decades and morphed into a gray silky and thick almost improbably impressive mane, well my razor and I now give me a classic case of male pattern baldness. I had to download a lot of pictures from the internet to capture that look. My beard is gone; my mustache that had gone along with it remains, colored to salt and pepper and completely refigured.
And the internet. You sort of need that to keep abreast of the world. You need to live somewhere with a great public library system, which lets you sit in front of a terminal anonymously. There are such places, just a little research needed. I had to change cities in any event, move far enough to get away from locations where I might disclose myself, and from people who knew me so well that they might be able to figure it out. Also, away from fancy tourist attractions or second home locations; when your friends have money, they tend to show up in those kinds of places.
Actually the hardest thing is something that you would think the simplest: I needed to change my name. I had to act like my assumed name was my real name. I found that a morose and reclusive personality kept interpersonal contacts at a minimum and allowed me to work on remembering that my name is now – well, you don’t need to know that, do you now?
The second hardest part was medical. I had to start anew under my new identity. It is hard with health care to just start fresh. People are suspicious. They think you are a thief on the run. They disbelieve you had the injections, the procedures, the medical or dental history you had. And I also did not want my dental records kept, did not want there to be pictures of my teeth and jaw. That level of concern in retrospect was a bit paranoid, but then again my entire mind set reeked of paranoia, why the hell was I doing this in the first place, I had to be a little bit “off.” Maybe more than a little bit? A local dental school where the students needed to practice and the emergency rooms and outpatient clinics in any decent sized city could fill in, unless of course I needed major medical care. I couldn’t maintain my Medicare, nor my supplementary insurance, and I wouldn’t lie and register my new self in Medicaid even if that were possible. So I have resolved not to get sick or get hit by a car, and if I fail in my resolve I will figure it out at the time.
I am paranoid mostly about my money which is all in cash. You put it in your apartment and your neighbor smokes in bed and it’s all gone. You go to a bank and then there you are, back on the grid. I keep it in a fireproof safe in a rented self-storage locker for which I pay cash. I am worried that someone will follow me for some reason, and figure I’m some old guy, and he’ll take my money as I leave the storage locker or, worse yet, force me to go back inside and open up my safe for him. I would carry a pistol, but then you’re either back on the grid of doing something illegal, right?
And what, I worry, if I happen to kick off with a zillion dollars of cash sitting in this vault? Sooner or later they open the locker, crack the vault and voila, there you are, bingo. And at that point there has to be better use of the money than someone I don’t know grabbing it. I was a lawyer, I looked up the law where I am living, I wrote a holographic will, if they open the vault they will find the will, and the money will get back to the kids so they maybe won’t think I was totally nuts. Then I thought, if someone opens the vault and sees the money would they not just burn the will and stuff their pockets? Probably. Well, you can’t solve everything so why worry about it. It’s not like you are writing a short story or something and it all has to be worked out neatly so some reader you don’t know sits back and says, “wow, what a guy, he’s a lot smarter than I am, I never could have done that foolproof.” Sometimes you just have to say, fuck it!
One more thing and then I will tell you why I am writing this, the interesting part that got me started. I want to describe me. Bear with me. I am 78 years old and look younger. I am white-skinned. I am now 5’8” which means I have shrunk over an inch, which I did not notice happening by the way. I weigh 144 pounds and do not look fat although my bones are small. My waist is 35 inches. My pants leg is 30 inches. The eyes are green with the lenses and brown without them. My hair fringe around my bald pate is pure white while my mustache has some trace of dark hair. I wear a 10 ½ shoe. I have a clearly inexpensive metal cross around my neck although I am Jewish, and you may catch me at an occasional Unitarian service where I keep to myself and volunteer for nothing. I spend my days reading and walking around. For holiday I take a bus on a cash ticket and rent a cabin by the water for one week at a time, where I like to sit on the beach and read. I watch sports on television but nothing else; I have given up on the news reports, as no one they feature there has ever bought me a beer. I have a group of retired friends who only know me by my adopted name; they think I came from New York and was a school teacher. They are average as people go, I suppose, but play a good game of pinochle and a careful game of nickel-dime poker, which is fine with me. I always liked fine food and wine and that is a problem, but on occasion I take out my suit and put on a French-cuffed shirt and cab over to one of the better restaurants in town and treat myself to a great meal. Unfortunately when you order a bottle of 2000 Lafite Rothschild they tend to make a fuss about you and want you to return, so I am careful to spread my business around. I even sometimes make reservations under another name which is sort of humorous, don’t you think? A man living under an assumed name needs another assumed name?
And that is where my story begins which is, improbably, a love story. Of sorts.
One evening I am having dover sole with a bottle of Le Montrachet. This is a very expensive indulgence but I have asked that the wine be served in the bottle, not decanted, and that the waiter bring it over and not the wine steward because I am a very private person, you see, and do not want to call attention to myself. So I am sipping my aperitif when a woman’s voice near me says, “Mr. Wilcox, may I introduce myself?” It does not occur to me that I have made this reservation in the name of Henry Wilcox; once you identify yourself at the reception, your name becomes irrelevant.
I am enjoying my rainwater madeira, surprised that such a subtle drink found its way onto the typical list featuring tequilas and seven kinds of martinis.
Sensing movement, I look up to find a woman in a dark suit standing in front of me, holding a bottle wrapped in a white cloth, its neck protruding and sporting a light sheen of condensation.
“I’m sorry to intrude, Mr. Wilcox, but it is not often we sell one of our prized bottles and since we are members of the same Church I couldn’t resist making your acquaintance.”
“Well, I am pleased to meet you, Mrs. – well, I am sorry,” a small self-deprecating smile is placed on my face, “I’m afraid I do not know your name.”
“And I do not know yours, or didn’t until I recognized you. Your waiter pointed you out, he was excited over your wine, and I looked and I said to myself, why I know that man, he comes to Church on occasion but keeps to himself, I ‘ve never seen him come downstairs for cider and cookies after the service. But here you are, aren’t you, right in my restaurant and ordering my favorite wine.”
“So you own this restaurant, do you?”
“Own –no, oh no. I am the sommelier here.”
“Really?” My blurt was insulting I am sure, it carried the incredulity in my mind, that a middle aged woman would oversee what was probably the best wine list in – well, in town.
“Oh, don’t worry about hurting my feelings, Mr. Wilcox; or if I may, Henry. I know I am a surprise, but it is what I do and [looking down in self-deprecation] I do manage to get the job done.”
“I’m sure you do, I’m sure you do.” I was having my longest conversation in the past half-year, I was not enjoying it, and it was with someone with whom I apparently had a connection and I did not even know her name. It occurred to me that I had better get my social graces in order or I was going to end up in some sort a problem back in the neighborhood.
“And I’m so sorry but I still do not know your name. Mrs?”
“I am Emily Steele but you should call me Emily. And I am doing what staff should not be doing which is standing in the middle of the main dining room chatting forever with a client. Forgive me, but may I have you taste the wine?”
“Oh, of course. Please. And, forgive me, but if this is your favorite wine, perhaps….” I paused and got the answer I had hoped for.
“So gracious of you, but of course I can’t as I am ‘on duty’ so to speak. But allow me to pour for you,” she said, all the while twisting her corkscrew while presenting the wine label to me, then dropping a taste into a crystal glass she had carried from the kitchen for the occasion, scooping the regular wine goblet neatly off the table, holding the bottle erect, placing the cork just to my left hand on the table while I tipped the glass to my lips and nodded that the wine was fine.
“Henry, I am sorry to have intruded and I’ll let Louis, he’s your waitstaff, finish the evening with you but I just couldn’t resist.”
“Well, thank you so much,” I said with as much sincerity as I could muster as I was just about to escape the uncomfortable encounter in one piece when she leaned toward me and almost hissed into my ear.
“You know, we both love fine wine. If not tonight, perhaps we can share a good bottle at another time.”
And then she was gone, leaving only her suggestion and the mildly cloying scent of toilet water behind her. I was jolted by the delivery of a plate of snails by Louis, who I swear smiled conspiratorily at me, however briefly. Damn, I thought, now I am going to have to remember her name. Emily! Emily what? Yes, easy, Emily Steele. I was about to relax my mind when I realized there was something else I would have to remember: Henry Wilcox. My name. this was going to be confusing; did I ever give my real phony name to the Church people? Don’t think so.
“Shit,” I said to myself. At least, I thought I said it to myself but the couple at the next table turned to look at me, quickly before turning away, so I guess what I thought was said in my mind had slipped out of my mouth. “Shit shit,” I thought, taking care this time to zip my lip. Great way not to be noticed….
I didn’t go to Church for a month, maybe more and I surely did not go back to Emily’s restaurant, but part of my plan of blending into the neighborhood was to appear – well, regular, normal, harmless, known to people but not in a creepy way, just blend. Attending Church when I had been a regular attendee at Synagogue was all part of my carefully conceived over-all plan to disappear into what I conceived to be local normalcy, not become the subject of speculation, not to be labeled as particularly strange, just more of a shy and private person.
One Sunday, by now Fall was coming and I had a raincoat over my blue blazer and was hustling up the front steps of the Church against the sense of oncoming chill, I had just about reached for the front door when a woman’s voice said, “why, Henry, is that you?”
I turned to greet Emily’s wide smile.
“Well, hello, Emily,” I said, swinging the door open wide. There was quite a breeze that day, and the Church was old and its door of heavy wood, and I almost teetered from the pull of the weight, but managed to maintain my gallant gesture and also get myself inside before my strength failed. When you get to my age, you can still remember what you should be doing but, to your occasional surprise, your body isn’t able to comply with your mind’s instructions.
“Thank you, Henry,” she said. “I have not seen you for a few weeks. Were you ill?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” I replied hastily and by reflex, thereby losing my easy explanation. “no, I am fine….”
Emily allowed me to trail off, a sign of good judgment I must say. We took to unbuttoning our coats as we shuffled silently towards the middle aisle. For a moment I thought she was expecting to sit with me but a couple of her contemporaries gave her a compact wave and she turned to me and indicated she would sit with her friends, which allowed me to sit by myself near the back and escape at the end without engaging in any conversation.
The sermon was about charity as self-indulgence. I found myself wondering how the Minister would recognize charity as not being self-indulgent, although I had never thought it was self-indulgent in the first place. But my persona certainly did not allow me start conversations, let alone involving religion and tautology, and I was on my feet and turning as the final hymn was being sung when Emily was in front of me, smiling again. Her neat lipstick was now slightly smudged but otherwise she was fully put together, the kind of woman with closely cut hair of the correct light blonde tones, just a dash of eyeliner, clip gold earnings, soft brown eyes with a hint of light in them, and just enough flesh under her skin so that her face appeared brushed by a few age lines, not ravaged by them. Her neck was smooth down to her single strand of pearls. Emily was appropriate for Church, wearing God-respecting clothes and also respecting her age, which I guessed to be – well, somewhere between mid-fifties and mid-sixties. If I were back – well, home – where people “had their faces done” – I would have guessed her in the late sixties but somehow I did not see Emily’s social circle electing for plastic surgery; everyone knew you forever, who were you trying to kid anyway, half the people in town had gone to public school with you, Emily, or with your two brothers, so you went and had the bags cut out from under your eyes in order to impress – who was that again?
“I am so glad I caught you before you left.” I thought, I bet she was, I bet she bounded up from her seat as soon as the last bar of the hymn began, I bet she knew I usually bolted for the hills and did not talk to anyone, and I bet her goal was to change all that.
“Can I invite you to join my friends and me for some cider and cookies in the social room downstairs? It’s about time you met some of the people here in your Church, Henry. And this is your Church, you know.”
“Now that you invite me, I’d be glad to join you and your friends,” I said. “Oh God, my worst nightmare” I thought.
“Wonderful,” she nearly trilled and as I stepped into the aisle she held me firmly in place by my forearm. “Henry, I would like you to meet Linda Schneider here; and Noami Cutter-Rheems, and this is Sarah Lincoln but relax, she is not related. Ladies, please say hello to Henry Wilcox.”
It was a long half-hour downstairs but the cider was nice and cold. I was reserved but polite and they did not much pry although I did reply at one point that I had taught school. It all went well until the Minister was called over to meet me, and he produced a card and said he wanted to put me on “the rolls,” not to worry, I didn’t have to make any donations or do anything at all but they liked to be able to know their parishioners. I told him that Henry Wilcox lived at some invented number on a nearby street, and the only strange moment was when I said I did not have a telephone. The small knot of people paused and looked me, but I just held the Minister’s gaze until he declared that that was “quite alright of course, everyone is obsessed by their cell phones these days anyway.”
When I left, I remembered to start walking in the direction of my invented address rather than towards my apartment. Why did I get myself into an unnecessary set of lies? And what was I doing in a mid-Western Church anyway? Why hadn’t I decided to disappear outside of the sight of God? So after that, I decided I did not have to go to Church after all; or perhaps I could have an epiphany and become a Presbyterian, not that I knew what that meant from a religious standpoint but there was one of their Churches a couple of blocks from my apartment. I was pretty sure that the Steele coven spelled bad news for me, let alone forcing me to keep remembering my own name. Besides, I gave them a bogus street address and, if they were interested in me and tried to use that address, they would get the message pretty quickly that I was not interested in them.
About a week later I am in the library, at a terminal, trying to understand this blockchain invention and why it is going to take over the world as we know it, provided we don’t blow up the world first, and I get a whiff of an all-too-familiar bath water from my starboard quarter, and I suppose it is likely that more than one person in my City uses that scent but somehow I knew, just knew, that I was in trouble once again.
I turned my head as slowly as I could, as if I could not sense the situation but knew that someone was standing there, and sure enough there she was, this time in a flowered blouse with a bit too low a cut, and an incongruous pair of jeans with flowers embroidered on the knees. Same make-up, a bit harsh in the bright library lights.
“There you are, you sly devil you,” she said as she pulled over an empty chair from the next kiosk and sat down next to me, her knees so close that they touched my khakis, clearly on purpose.
“Oh, it’s you,” I cleverly observed and said no more.
“Yes indeed and I was worried about you.” I suspected that ‘nosy’ was the right word, that ‘worry’ had little to do with it. “It has been six weeks since you were at Church, the girls and I began to think we scared you away. Did we scare you away, Henry?” Her voice dropped almost to an unbecoming purr. “I certainly didn’t have that in mind.”
“Of course not,” I said with a slight hint of indignation. “I just found that the services at First Presbyterian were really sort of more my style.” I paused to give my statement gravity. “Nothing personal, of course,” I added.
“You know,” she said quietly, leaning forward from the waist to come close to my face and affording a great view down the front of her blouse, “you are a very naughty man.” She held the pose, waiting to see my reaction.
“Well, I hate to disappoint you, and I may be a lot of things but naughty is not one of them,” I said with a broad smile.
“Your home address is a shoe store, you know. Or likely, you did not know.”
Offense being better than defense, I attacked. “So you came around looking for me? I can’t believe it. You seem like a lovely woman, why would you do that? Now you embarrass me. I am a private person. You and your friends were wonderfully accepting but truth be told, I just want to be left alone. I have had a rather [dramatic pause followed by] complicated life. At this stage I could really use my space.”
She leaned even closer, the smell of her bath water was all around me, her lips were inches from my ear, but she spoke clearly in my ear in a dulcet tone of slight admonition: “Why are you giving me such bull-shit?”
I had no answer except the honest one so I told her. “Because I am on the run and I need to stay invisible.”
“I knew it, I just knew it. You stay to yourself, you pay with cash, hundred dollar bills to be precise, and your cuff links are solid gold with large star sapphires.” Her eyes sparkled in triumph.
“So you understand why I don’t want to get involved with other people, then.”
“I understand why you don’t want to get caught in a lie with other people.” Her lips now were right next to my ear. Her exhaust of air almost drowned out her words: “But I am not ‘other people.’”
I could have sworn her mouth touched the hairs on my right ear, a quick glancing sweep, it might have been the force of her words, but afterwards there was a tickle lurking on the edge of my right earlobe.
“What IS your name, by the way,” she asked, filling the fifteen seconds of silence following her remark during which I was speechless. “It is not Henry Wilcox, is it? I bet you make reservations with false names all the time.”
I had to cut this off, so I tried. Pushing my chair sideways to destroy the suggestion that I was her co-conspirator, I sat upright to create a more formal playing field. “Look, I hate to ruin your story, and I know you would prefer that I was a man of mystery, but I assure you I am not a criminal and I tell you that the truth of the details is both uninteresting and private so, while I think you are a lovely person, I would really not like to get into it. If you don’t mind,” I added lamely.
“Well,” she began, and reached out and placed her bare hand on my bare forearm and kept it there, warm and open, “I am not going to be a problem. I’m just a working woman who likes wine and whist and going to Church. I accept your apology.” I blinked but she went on. “Why don’t we go out for dinner tonight, nothing fancy, and we can talk. We can have some wine together, that would be nice, and you can tell me the name you are using when you are not saying you are Henry Wilcox, and we can take it from there. What do you say?”
“Emily, I am just not sure that you understand what I am telling you.”
“No, you’re wrong about that. It is you who is not understanding what I am telling you. Shall we say 7:00 tonight at Jack’s Grille, over on Fourth?” She stood before I could think of a response. “And don’t be too late, dear.” As she turned to leave she said over her shoulder, “You know I do know how to find you.” And then she was gone.
I probably should have cleared out my safe, grabbed a few clothes and just left town that afternoon. A couple of bus changes and I could be anywhere. There would be no evidence of me left, except for my furnished apartment which was covered by a cash security deposit of four month’s rent so there wasn’t much chance the building management would come looking for me; the place was hardly lived in and I was leaving behind a sixty inch TV and a pile of other electronics. It just seemed like such an effort. I was not as young as I once was; who is? More importantly, what’s the risk. I could tell her my real fake name. She would be intrigued. We could have a little wine; maybe a lot of wine. Maybe she is just lonely. I could explain again how I want to be alone.
Or perhaps I don’t need to go that far. Perhaps it would not kill me to have a friend, so long as I made clear we did not end up as a social pair plugged in to other people. In fact, as I thought about it, it seemed possible that she would even prefer that. A little mystery for a middle-aged woman working nights in a restaurant, pouring twenty dollar bottles of Rioja into the glasses of people who thought they were drinking top shelf. And maybe I could find out what made her tick; she surely was deeper than she seemed at first, there was gotta say a part of me that found some mystery in her. The danger bell clanged loudly in my head as I dressed for dinner. Jack’s was strangely close to my apartment but, that had to be a coincidence as there was no way she could know where I lived, or she would have gone there rather than to the shoe store.
I arrived first and asked for a table in the center of the room, which was over-lit and noisy. The kind of place with bare wooden tables and modern china, with silverware designed with odd shapes which fell off the edges of plates unless balanced just so. The wine list was ordinary but they had a couple of high end items. Hopefully they had been kept at correct temperature or you would be buying a $175 bottle of wine vinegar. Red or white? Who knew what she liked? Actually I did, she liked Le Montrachet, but that thousand dollar bottle was not to be had at Jack’s so I ordered the most expensive cabernet on the menu and had it opened before Emily arrived, ten minutes late as I was sure she would be. I know this game, though from distant memory.
I rose and she did not wave me down but rather waited for me to circle the table and pull out her chair. She answered with a smile. She was wearing a grey knit dress that was one size too small and twenty years too young for her, same single strand of pearls, and she looked over-ripe and slightly past but certainly someone who was trying and not wholly failing. She arranged her purse below her chair, looked up and smiled. “You look very handsome tonight.” She said.
“Thank you; and you look like a million yourself.”
Another smile, a glance down.
“I took the liberty of ordering a bottle of cabernet. It isn’t Lafite but in my view it is the best they have to offer. May I pour for you?”
“Well, I poured for you before, so I’d say it’s your turn.” No irony or edge in that; a pleasant repartee delivered with a pleasant smile.
As the wine was slowly slipping into her goblet, I looked up and told her that mystery was not my MO and that my real name was, well I had told her my real fake name but said that between us and her friends and her restaurant we should still use ‘Henry.’ She nodded, accepting the information as if she expected it.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said.
“Ah no, you must expect it won’t be that easy. And you caught me lying before and I am not going to lie to you again,” I lied, “so why don’t I ask you to tell me about you?”
She laughed, a pleasant laugh, not too loud and not too cackly and with a slight tinkle. Sipping the wine, she noted it had great tannins.
“That’s fair. But not too much. I am 59 years old. I went to community college in Chicago and worked as a bookkeeper for a while. I was married twice. They both died. I didn’t do it. My second husband had moved her to work as a manager at the rolling mill on the West Side. He died about the time they closed. Here I was, I had some friends, no children, not that much money but this town is not expensive—.” She paused and smiled knowingly. “But you know that, that is one of the reasons you are here, isn’t it?”
I tipped my glass slightly in her direction.
“I always liked wines. I knew the wife of the owner of my restaurant. She suggested I might hostess there, and I started and went to the tastings that the wine wholesalers gave to the staff and started to learn. I had a good nose for it, and pretty soon I was a wine steward. This is not a sophisticated town, Henry. It didn’t take a degree to serve wine to most of the people. When an expensive bottle got ordered, I just would grab it, bring it out with a flourish and tell the customer that it was my favorite wine. That usually got me a $20 tip on top of what was on the dinner tab.” She gave me a big grin, my cue.
“So, Le Montrachet is not your favorite wine?”
She laughed. “Of course not. Never tasted it in my life. This may come as a shock, but I generally don’t get into wines that wholesale for $600 a bottle.” She sipped again, and looked up. “This is pretty tasty,” she said and then discreetly smacked her lips.
“Now your turn.”
“Me? Well, I told you my name. Won’t tell you where I am from either. I already told you I’m not a crook and don’t ask me why I am here because I won’t tell you. I used to teach English in High School. I am 73 years old and so far all my arms and legs are still in working order. I like it here in town. It is quiet. I get to do what I never got to enjoy in the day. I don’t have to support anyone with money or with emotions. I don’t have to do good for the world. I can just enjoy the quiet, take a half hour shower each morning, and take walks in the sun and read all the books I want to read. It’s that simple. That’s me.”
“And your wife?”
“I won’t lie and say I didn’t have one. She was fine, really fine as these things go. She passed away a few years ago. My kids, they are still back home. They took this thing of mine pretty hard and got pretty angry. I do feel badly when I think about it so I don’t think about it. Does it pop into my mind much? Less than I thought it would. I guess I am pretty selfish and self-contained. Well, you’ve seen that yourself, right?” I paused to swish my wine around and take a deep drink. The waiter took our order, a couple of steaks, hers medium and mine rare, and split the hash browns. While you’re at it, waiter, I think we need another bottle.
We ate and talked and drank the second bottle and I was having a good time, gotta say. Emily was not so smart but not so dumb either, and she had common sense, people sense, and I was sure she knew that some of what I told her was untrue and was smart enough not to make a point of it. Near the end of the dinner, I made my big mistake, and it is all my fault. I had hoped that when she was mellow I could deliver my message and she would, in effect, shrug and thank me for the meal. But it seemed that delivering a message at the end of our meal also was her own plan. She leaned forward, face open and eyes wide and with the most pleasant of real-life smiles asked me if I wanted to know what she was thinking.
Now super bells should have been going off because that is one hell of a great question. How can you tell someone with whom you are not fighting that you really don’t give a damn what’s on their mind? And although you really don’t want to hear about their agenda, because it almost always is not your agenda, you almost have to listen to the answer and furthermore you can’t object or cry foul because, by ginger, it was YOU who asked for it in the first place. I was sober enough not to answer “yes” and drunk enough not to say anything and Emily, what a smart cookie she turned out to be, she just took the silence as permission, which of course it was in its own way.
“I want to have a relationship with you. You are a nice looking smart man. You go to Church though you don’t care which one. I can forgive that since I am Jewish.” I spurted my last sip of wine back into my glass but she held up her hand to continue. “You have money galore. You have to be lonely, I don’t care what you say, and this town grows on you like a mold if you are here too long, you will be going batty any day now. I believe that about the only thing you have ever said to me that was true is that you aren’t a criminal, and that’s nice. As for me, I am lonely and bored and you are the best thing I’ve seen since my last husband died, and frankly the best thing I’ve seen since way before that, and while I suspect you aren’t as young as you say, you look healthy and you don’t limp and you don’t drool and I bet you could get it up once in a while which is lot more than I have seen in the last eight years. So, Henry or whatever your real real name is, I would really like to be your friend. Your close friend. In every way. And lastly, I am not threatening you, because I am not that kind of person and would never create such an unhealthy basis for a relationship, but if I were you I think I would be inclined to accept real fast.” She paused, then added “if you know what I mean.”
I sat still because what the hell else do you do? And her smarts quotient rose triple in that moment because she was a player, and further she dared me not to know what she meant, when in fact I was 200% certain that she herself did not know what she meant.
The coffee arrived in silence, skim for her, cream for me. I dumped in a ton of cream and slowly stirred it.
Finally, I had to reply. “I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“Good,” she said promptly as she picked up her coffee cup, “that’s the right answer, I’ll take that as a yes.”
A romantic person might be prone to describe the few months as a blur of passion, but a realist would call it a year of slow surrender to a new and pleasant status quo. Turned out that although my aging arms and legs remained wholly functional, another appendage suffered greatly from the passage of time. Although, it turned out that under those usually formal clothes Emily had a serviceable body with enough curves and groans to modestly rekindle parts of my personality that I had set aside sadly but, I had thought, permanently. We were seldom a couple to the outside world, although at times we would sit together at a variety of City churches, a curious ritual we did not talk about beyond identifying that Sunday’s favored locale. We first spent nights together at her apartment, where one bottle of wine led to another bottle and then to falling asleep together and, finally and regularly thereafter, to such intimacy as we could muster. Emily was eager but not pushy, seemed pleased with whatever occurred, and I found that being held, touched and warmed was better than being alone. Such is the nature of man, I told myself, which sort of took me off the hook for violating my master plan.
Emily did call me by any name beyond Henry Wilcox. We read, walked, and mostly chatted. The fact that she knew about English literature than I did, even though my cover story was that I taught English, became evident but she was kind enough, or smart enough, not to point out that anomaly. I was under cover, that was a fact with no impact on our lives.
Except the cash. Emily was fine with splitting all our mutual costs, but once we started spending the occasional night at my apartment, and my defenses were relaxed, the issue of money came up. Emily had credit cards, of course, but when we ate out or went to an occasional concert or play at the University there was that awkward mechanical moment where costs were divided and half paid by her card and half by my seemingly boundless hundred dollar bills. People are people, and I am sure that with some pride, late at night, I alluded to my sizeable stash kept in a vault in a secret place. Emily never asked, no doubt knowing that a question in that area was one of our taboos.
I did become something of a regular at her restaurant, and she told me that the owner had started to give her a percentage of the price of each of the bottles of wine I ordered, since I was clearing out their entire store of expensive old wines that no one else was ordering. Emily wanted me to know that right away, she said, to be sure that I understood that she was not trying to profit from my friendship, that she deeply valued our relationship for itself. She even offered to give me her “bonus” but of course I grandly rejected that offer with a wave of the back of my hand accompanied by a small smile which was proxy for a very wide smile inside.
By the following Spring we had been seeing each other almost daily, sleeping together most nights, and had fallen into a pleasant pattern of comfort. I kept waiting for my body to fail me, particularly after one of our rare energetic nights together, but the old Timex in my chest just kept on ticking and the only suggestion from the intern at the public clinic was that I might want to cut down a bit on the salt. When not together, I continued to read and walk, and every so often I would walk across town to my locker and re-supply my wallet with a few hundreds. I was burning more money than I had anticipated, but then again I was fine unless I lived until 145 or so. The only negative in my life was a tinge of occasional guilt; here I was in effect having, let’s face it, an emotional relationship with someone who was not within my family, as I thought of it, while my children and grandchildren did not even know if I was alive, suffering, ill or destitute. I thought about that a lot, to tell you the truth, but at night when my sagging body curled into the warmth of Emily’s full and not-yet-broken bulk, I was sure that I was entitled to my life and did not need to account for it.
One day in early or mid May, Emily had left my apartment around noon to go back to her place, and get ready for her stint at the restaurant which began with set-up at 4:00. The sun had been out all morning, the air warm and dry, crocuses and a few random green shoots were poking up, and yes the birds were chirping and the robins were punching neat little holes in the ground. A Norman Rockwell moment, I thought, as I headed down Fourth and turned left onto Commercial, a perfect day to walk to the locker and restock my wallet. I used my pass-card to enter the building, opened the locker and stared at my empty safe, sitting open in its corner. My hand-written will lay on the floor. To say I could not believe it would be useless understatement.
This was indeed an existential crisis. In an effort to leave no trace or links I had turned absolutely every asset into the cash in that vault. I sat down in the small locker room, back against the cinder block wall, knees flat on the ground, and waited for death to clutch me by the heart. Unfortunately, I seemed to be surviving, and I realized I would have to go to the police and see if anything could be done. I did have my alias and my false life fully established and there was no reason why the police would question my story or blow my cover. What did they care if I was using a name I was not born with, it didn’t change the fact that I was robbed.
I had to turn over on my hands and knees to brace my palms against the wall and force myself up, absorbing the now-familiar ache in my knees and the small of my back. I locked up and began walking towards City Hall and started to have second thoughts. Would I be believed? No one had seen the contents of the vault. How much money was in the vault in cash? Well that’s a lot of money not to be in a bank, how sir do you happen to come by that large sum? Oh, you earned it, well that’s fine just give us a reference to confirm that and of course we will try to solve this, even take finger prints and all, and by the way do you happen to have any serial numbers of any of those bills? I stopped on the steps of City Hall, unsure what to do. Hard to process all these facts and problems. Did it matter if my cover were blown? I could not continue with my plan without any money so all I had to do was confess my plan, which was in every way legal even if strange, and then I would have to go back to my old life and see what happened next. My kids would shake their heads and think I was a foolish old man who deserved what happened to him, but they wouldn’t turn their backs on me I was sure. And I could introduce them to Emily, and Emily certainly seemed to have some money, enough to live in a middle-class sort of way, that might help….
Emily! She could help me figure out my next steps. It was only about 2pm, I could quickly walk over to her place, we could talk, maybe she could call in sick just this once, she was pretty good at thinking things through, and no doubt there were things I was not focused on that required discussion. Walking as quickly as I dared, I got to her building about ten to three and rang her buzzer. No buzz back, no voice on the intercom. Damn thing must be broken. Maybe she was napping or in the shower. I needed to see her. I rang the superintendent, he knew who I was, sure he would let me in and accompany me up while I knocked on the door. Up in the elevator to five, left down the hall, and there was the door to 508 but no answer to the apartment bell or loud knocking.
“I know she’s in there, she never goes to the restaurant this early, I’m worried she has a problem. Please open the door for me.”
“Well, I’m not supposed to do that, ya know?”
“Oh I’m sure but you know me, right? And you can come in with me, okay? In case there’s a problem. And to make sure, you know, that I don’t take anything?”
“I dunno, maybe we should call the cops?”
“If there’s something wrong we should go inside right away,” I argued, a point fortified by the hundred dollar bill I handed to him from my wallet.
“Allright but I’ll go in also, just like you said.”
The master key opened the door and I called out. No answer. No one in the shower. I went down the hall and the bedroom was empty, the bed neatly made. Where the hell was she, anyway? As I turned I noticed the sliding door on the closet was open. There were no clothes on the hangers.
From the pictures I was shown, Natalie McLaughlin, aka Susanna Stern, aka Louisa Tarkington, and apparently also aka Emily Steele late of the City, was wanted in three states for defrauding older men, one of whom was found dead of a suspicious heart attack in Newark, New Jersey. Her current whereabouts were unknown. She was, apparently an expert in staying off the grid, relying on a series of false identifications. I envied the dead guy in Newark; I wish to hell she had killed me rather than making me an old fool led around by what was left of his forlorn member.
The kids were sympathetic until the enormity of what had befallen me became apparent, and all this about an old man who refused to fall ill and qualify for a shared bed in some old age facility. My telling them about the will I had left in the vault did not much alleviate the situation. My grandchildren were a comfort, particularly during my bouts of depression. My friend let me again collect my social security checks; I suspect that my son Mel had made some sort of a financial deal with him but I was afraid to ask and they were too kind to talk about it.
As I write this I am now turning 88 and still going strong. My Emily remains among the missing. I must say I have a growing admiration for Emily, she was better at my ultimate game than I was. Much better.
And late at night, alone in my son’s spare room, I sort of miss her.