The Invisibility of Wealth
Sylvain, a man of thirty, sat at the table drinking coffee. He scrutinized the tables surrounding him on the patio, moving his focus methodically from one to the other. Several tables away, two men sitting across from one another were handed menus. One took a glance at his before he placed it down on the table and excused himself. The other continued perusing his.
Sylvain got up, walked in the direction of the table and toward a door leading inside the restaurant. As he passed the table he brushed against it slightly, removing the cell phone lying next to the silverware and the glass of water. He passed through the length of the restaurant and out the front.
Sylvain walked south on Hollywood Boulevard, came to the intersection, crossed the street and proceeded on. He was walking closely behind a group of four, tourists it was all but certain. One couple stopped in front of a pizza parlor. When the man took his wallet out and handed several bills to his wife in order to buy the pizza two of them fluttered away. Sylvain quickly scooped them up and dashed off.
Sylvain was on the bus, seated just behind the rear door. He was having a conversation, speaking to a friend it seemed, though no one on the bus could hear him. That is because the words were spoken only in his head.
You may not understand what it is about phones. For one thing they put them down, they put them down more than anything else they own. Even wallets are left behind more often than you would probably think. Everyone is in a hurry. The phones may not be worth a lot but they add up. I’m not an armed robber, and I couldn’t be in a million years. I’ve never attacked people and I never will. There is no justification for harming people. If I’m ever caught, the penalties for the kinds of things I do are minor enough I could probably manage. But I don’t want to lose my freedom, I’m afraid of that, I admit.
It was a decrepit old hotel, and Sylvain entered the elevator and pressed the button for four. Getting off, he walked down the hall as far as room 425, knocking at the door when he got there. There was the sound of footsteps, and a graying man in shorts and a polo shirt answered the door. He opened it and grunted, then returned to his chair beside the bed. Sylvain approached the bed, where he began to empty his pockets, dropping their contents there in a little pile: cell phones, an ipod, a fancy cigarette lighter, a broach, and a silver flask.
“That’s what there is today,” he said. “Nothing that big, Buddha.” “I figured that, since all of it fit in your pockets,” Buddha told him.
“The ipod is brand new, and the cell phones are the expensive kind.”
Buddha examined the items, picking them up one by one. Sylvain was looking at the television, where a freeway chase was in progress on a local channel.
“They never get away. Don’t they watch TV?” Sylvain asked.
“That’s the fun of watching them,” Buddha answered chuckling. “The guy never seems to have a clue.”
“There isn’t a lot of drama really,” Sylvain said.
“I can give you one-fifty. That’s not bad for two days work.” “It’s not great.”
“It’s a lot of small items, Syl.” “I know,” Sylvain agreed.
Buddha took seven twenties and a ten out of his wallet and handed them over to Sylvain.
Sylvain had boarded the Metro train, which would take him all the way to the Valley, where his cozy apartment in Studio City awaited him. He explained to his newest friend, the one he alone was aware of, a little about Buddha.
He’s not so bad. I can forgive his churlishness, since he treats me mostly fairly. The kinds of dealings we have aren’t subject to government regulations or codes of professional conduct. It’s mostly a judgment call. And he takes the risk of selling things. I could never do that. I couldn’t cope with the risk, and I couldn’t cope with the people.
Back in his apartment, containing as it did an old refrigerator, an old stove, a small dresser, books and magazines, a television with an antenna resting on a chair beside the bed, the ancient CD player and the two lamps, Sylvain was stirring his dinner in the frying pan when he began to hear a piercing scream. He dropped the spoon onto the stovetop and hurried to the window.
There was a boy of five or so, running along the sidewalk and screeching. When he reached his father coming toward him on the sidewalk, he threw his arms around him and squealed.
When the change came, it was like a change in the weather patterns, a cycle that had been entered while another was being left behind. First, there were the days he sat for hours, one café after another, and yet no opportunity presented itself at all. At night he canvassed all his usual areas, observed as carefully at Hollywood and Highland as he ever did, followed the bunches of out-of-towners, and examined the crowds in general, dipped into the familiar greasy spoons along the way that often yielded something. He watched for an infelicitous exchange of cash, but it didn’t come.
There was the day he went to the mall in Sherman Oaks, and made it into the dressing rooms at Bloomingdale’s, and thought his fortunes were about to change, when he spotted the Ferragamo moccasins under the door of one of the changing rooms. Yet there was nothing in the pockets of the pants but keys, and a heavily creased stick of chewing gum.
He moved the clothes out of the washing machine and into the dryer, then sat back down and returned to the book he was almost finished with. It was a skinny book he’d bought for fifty cents at the Iliad. It was called Miss Lonelyhearts, and it was rather old. It wasn’t what he thought it would be. But the story was interesting anyhow.
He had always read, it was something you could do no matter what, with a library card, or buying inexpensively in the used shops. He loved the LA Times. He liked the magazines. Something lately sparked an interested in philosophy, which intrigued him, even when he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, which was most of the time. But he was fondest perhaps of memoirs, practically any sort. He read a novel occasionally, but the memoirs were always best.
When he returned from the laundromat he made some stew in the frying pan, and poured it over some rice, and ate it on the bed watching the local news. There was a premiere at the ArcLight, and the reporter from Channel Five was there interviewing one of the cast.
“You were terrific in it Stacy,” the reporter, easily as glamorous as the actress herself, offered as praise.
“I worked very hard. You have no idea. I’d never ever played a pilot before. It was quite a challenge. But I think I did a good job.”
In was around noon when he crossed Ventura Boulevard, heading in the direction of the Sportsmen’s Lodge. By that time of day the sunbathers and the swimmers ought to be out at the pool he thought. It was something he attempted only rarely, during the worst droughts, taking up a position on a poolside chaise lounge, then snapping up lucrative-looking belonging when a swimmer was in the pool, with no one thereabouts to witness.
After several hours, he came away with what from a distance were fancy looking sunglasses, but upon inspection, the kind you got at the drugstore. Walking back to his room, he made several points to his friend.
Yes, they’re the kind you buy in a drugstore for ten or fifteen dollars. But you have to try. It’s the nature of this to be hit or miss. But on days as nice as this, I remind myself that the palms are free. The views of the mountains are free. The San Gabriels capped in snow in the winter costs nothing to look at. The sun and the warmth are free. Breathing ocean air, and looking at the Pacific are free. A little snafu like this has to be kept in perspective.
That evening, Sylvain traversed his usual route of streets and avenues. He carefully observed every transaction, every interaction, awaiting his opportunity. He ventured over to Cahuenga, and the string of clubs and bars there, where the young crowds always milled about on the sidewalks. He gave up after a while, and stationed himself in an area of Sunset near the Cat and Fiddle, which was sparse compared to his usual spots, but worth a try in a pinch. And it was a pinch.
After returning to his usual stomping grounds, which radiated from Hollywood and Vine, he lingered later than he normally would. He had been leaning against a wall with his eyes closed, when he was awakened by the squawk of a patrol car as it sped by. Wearily, he began to move again, thinking it would be better to begin anew in the morning.
Halfway down the block he came to the bus stop. The bench was occupied so he leaned against the shelter wall in order to rest. He watched as three young women a few feet way on the sidewalk frantically talked. One of them placed her cell phone on the hood of a car as she rifled through her purse in search of something. She continued to talk with her friends as she did, and then she shouted and closed her purse, having found what she was searching for.
The three turned around and set off down the sidewalk again. Sylvain walked calmly toward the phone, and just as he reached the car, the woman remembered it, and suddenly swirled around. Seeing Sylvain standing there looking at her phone, her eyes grew large with surprise. Sylvain saw her, but suddenly reached down and grabbed the phone anyhow. The woman shrieked, and Sylvain took off, running down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.
“Hey,” she yelled, sprinting off in pursuit.
Sylvain ran as fast as he could, the woman not terribly far behind him. He came to an intersection, and though the blinking sign instructed him not to walk, he bolted on anyhow. Halfway down the block, still tearing along as fast as he possibly could he heard the skidding of tires, an impact, followed by gasps and screams. He stopped, suddenly frozen in place.
As a crowd began to gather, he approached carefully. When he was close enough, he could see the red dress and the boots of the woman who had been chasing him, as she lay unconscious in the street. He turned and slowly began to walk away. The farther he walked, the faster he went.
Sylvain lay in bed with his eyes wide open. Then he wept until he fell asleep. He slept through the following day, getting up only after the sun was down, eating devilled ham from the can as he stood beside the window staring. Then he returned to bed. The following afternoon, he got up sometime after four and left the apartment again. He walked down the street to the market and bought the LA Times.
He took it to a nearby restaurant where he sat outside at one of the tables and opened the paper up. He took out the California section and scanned over the local news capsules. When he came to the one that said, Pedestrian Hit in Hollywood, he stopped and read it. He noted the hospital to which the victim was taken, folded the paper up, and headed down the street to the bus stop.
When he got to Kaiser-Permanente, Sylvain went to the information desk, followed the signs through the lobby, and down the corridors, until he’d arrived at the elevator. He found the room on the sixth floor, but did not enter right away, in fact he slowly passed by the room instead, briefly glancing inside as he passed. There were two visitors standing beside the bed, a man and woman around the age of the patient. Sylvain stood against the wall, only a short distance down the corridor from the room. He waited, and when the visitors finally left the room, he cautiously approached it.
When he entered the room, he didn’t speak at first. He wanted to see if he was recognized.
“Hi,” he finally said.
“Hi,” the woman in the bed answered, “Do I know you?” “No, but I’ll explain.”
“I heard about your accident. I mean, I knew about it. Because I was there when it actually happened.”
“You saw me get hit?”
“I was nearby, but I didn’t see the car hit you. I heard the commotion and came over where the crowd was.”
“I wanted to stop by and see how you were doing. You looked pretty bad after you got hit, lying in the street.”
“Well, I am pretty bad. I have three fractured ribs, a punctured lung and a bunch of gashes and bruises.”
“That’s awful. How are you feeling?”
“They’re pumping me intravenously with heavy-duty painkillers. So I’m not feeling bad at all at the moment.”
“It’s good you’re not in pain,” he said. “It sure is.”
Neither she nor Sylvain spoke for thirty seconds or so. “Well, thanks for your concern,” she said eventually. “You’re welcome. But I…I wanted to give you something.” “Really? Okay.”
“But you have to let me explain before you say anything.” “Okay,” she said, “but I’m kind of tired.”
Sylvain slowly approached the bed, and then he handed her the cell phone. “Where did you get this?” she asked. “You found it?”
“Not exactly. Please let me explain.”
“Then explain, because I really have no idea what this is all about. But thanks for the phone though. That’s a giant relief.”
“You see,” he began, looking down, “what I do to survive…well, the other night in Hollywood…
I was the one who took your phone and ran, that was me. And I’m sorry. I’m extremely sorry.”
“Oh my god.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I acted so impulsively.”
“Why did you steal my phone? Do you steal other people’s phones too? Are you a thief?
Or did you just decide to steal my phone for some crazy reason?”
“It’s been a rough patch…yes, I am a thief. I was tired, and I did something impulsive and out of character.”
“But you’re a thief?”
“Yes. But I don’t hurt people.”
“Well I’m hurt,” she said sharply.
“I know. And it’s my fault.” “You’re damned right it is.”
Sylvain could think of nothing to say.
Then the woman said, “I kind of don’t know what to say really.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I just wanted to give your phone back at least. And admit what I did, and apologize.”
She was silent for a moment, staring at him, and then she said, “That’s actually kind of impressive. It’s infuriating what you did. Despicable really. But I’m impressed you actually came here. I assume you don’t return a lot of phones.”
“No, I can’t remember ever doing it.”
“You didn’t consider an accident like this happening, did you?” “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“Live and learn.” “I suppose so.” “At least I lived.”
“I can’t tell you how glad of that I am,” he told her.
“You seem like a perfectly capable and cool person. But the street stealing thing is really bothersome, it’s really disgusting. I don’t really get it. How can you do things like that, live like that?”
A strange thing happened. They continued to talk. In fact, an observer might have said they appeared to enjoy talking with one another quite a bit.
At one point she said, “You probably do get compliments. But the mindset you have keeps them from sinking in.”
“Maybe you’re seeing things other people don’t. I’m aware of my own intelligence and my own capabilities for what it’s worth.”
“Good. You should be. Besides that, you’re…kind of an attractive guy you know.” She paused, then said, “I can’t believe I’m flirting with a guy who stole my phone.”
After they had been talking for quite a while, she asked, “What’s your name by the way?”
“I’ve never heard that name before. It’s unusual.”
“It’s a French name. Or a name with French origins I guess you would say. Yours is Sandra.”
“Yes it is. Sandra and Sylvain. Sylvain and Sandra. God.”
It didn’t seem as though she wanted him to leave. He didn’t think she wanted him to. A nurse came into the room and examined the IV, and asked Sandra how she was feeling.
Sylvain said, “I think I ought to go.” “Okay, but wait just a minute,” Sandra said.
When the nurse had gone, she told Sylvain that she would be released in several days, and in a couple of weeks, when she was healing up, maybe they could get together.
“I just blurt things right out don’t I?” she said. “You kind of do,” he told her.
She reached over and took a pencil and a magazine off the table, tore out a page of the magazine and wrote down her number on it.
“Call me and we’ll get together,” she said.
“I will,” he told her, and he was sure that he would.
You could see the ocean, and it was one of the nicer restaurants along the beach between the Marina and Venice. He had the LA Times spread on the table in front of him, though the breeze would occasionally ruffle the pages, and next to it his cup of coffee. It looked as though he was attentive to the paper in front of him, though he really wasn’t. Two women in their mid- thirties were sitting at the table next to his, pecking at their salads and eating nachos. Sylvain enjoyed illuminating his craft for his old companion.
The heavier one has been giving romantic advice. She is talking about her friends, and elaborating on several general grievances among them. She is very self-involved, not self-aware at all. If anything of hers of value appears, it would be easy to slip it away without her notice. The one who’s listening, on the other hand, is quiet and observant. I can sense she has noticed me and that she finds me odd.
He turned his attention to another table nearby, and the dapper blonde man in the Hawaiian shirt.
He’s vain. I’d be surprised if his sunglasses weren’t the most expensive available. I hope he takes them off and lays them down.
Sylvain turned his attention to an older couple drinking iced-tea.
They’re successful, but too old and unpretentious to own many fancy gadgets.
When the waitress brought the check for the blonde man at the nearby table, she brought Sylvain’s as well. He anchored the money and the check from the breeze, slipping them slightly under the water glass. He watched, as the two conspicuously beautiful women of a tender age entered, and approached his soon to be empty table, and the blonde man rushed to set his money out and leave in time to inadvertently encounter them on his way out. It was then Sylvain slipped the money off the blonde man’s table and quickly walked away.
As he walked along Washington Boulevard in the direction of the bus stop, he pointed out several things he thought were important.
No one pays me the slightest attention. It doesn’t matter what part of town it is, really. They always have better things, or other people to occupy them. What better asset for a person in a profession such as mine, right? It makes my occupation nearly inevitable you could even say. And so you know, stealing tips is one of the hardest parts of the job I have. Taking belongings from those who have the least, or those who least deserve it, you could even say, is never easy. Not that anyone deserves to have their belongings stolen. Other than a thief that is, which of course is me. I always hope those I am stealing from had it coming somehow in the karmic sense. If I could make a living only taking from those who are better off, or those who perhaps deserved it, I would. But I don’t know how to do that.
After his visit with Buddha, walking in the direction of the Metro station, he confided some other essential thoughts to his friend.
I should make it perfectly clear, I have no defense whatsoever to offer for stealing rather than working in order to make a living. I mean, I have a practical defense, not a moral defense. In fact, I possess so many severe deficiencies as a human being, other options truly are beyond my reach. The truth is, I am utterly stymied when enclosed with people, much less in a busy office or such. I literally freeze. I cannot speak. I am genuinely incapable of functioning. And I have never attempted to do conventional work. The physical discomfort, the claustrophobia in any such confinement, with any kind of requirements imposed by others unleashes a furious panic. I am easily beset with boredom when not left entirely to my own devices. So I can never carry out a task efficiently, which renders me completely useless. It pains me, and it humiliates me to admit to such a useless nature, but there it is. I’m terrified of medicines. I understand that being exceptionally flawed is not an excuse for stealing. It’s not a defense, only an explanation, I hope you can see that. Practically speaking I am simply defective. But I do as little harm as possible.
Sandra and Sylvain were walking along the wide sidewalk after coming off the Santa Monica Pier. The breeze off the ocean was gentle and cool, and they strolled along at a leisurely pace.
“We won’t talk about what you do for a living anymore,” she said. “That would be a welcome change.”
“I’m sorry. But you know, I don’t meet many people who do that for a living. Besides, it seems so un-you.”
“It’s as me as anything there is about me.”
“We won’t dwell on it anymore. I promise,” she assured him. “We should talk about what you do for a living then.”
“Yes, because cleaning houses for a living is so interesting.” “It could be.”
“No, it couldn’t. But I like it okay. It’s better than working in an office by far. I get a lot of exercise, and don’t have to pay for a gym. It’s my own business. I’m my own boss.”
“Same as me,” he said.
“There you go. We have something in common.” “We do,” he said.
“So do you still feel like going to that club I was talking about?” “I think so, yes.”
“You can follow me over. Where did you park?” “I didn’t park. I came here on the bus.”
“You took a bus all the way from Studio City to Santa Monica?” “It’s not that far.”
“Yes it is. You don’t have a car?” “I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Well I guess you’ll have to ride with me.”
He had his reservations about going to a nightclub, mostly because he had seldom been to one, almost never really, but also because meeting Sandra’s friends made him a bit nervous.
But it was the kind of thing you were supposed to do. And she seemed to be extremely fond of them.
He had come to this neighborhood occasionally when he was on the job, because of the collection of nightspots bunched together there, and the busy street traffic. The club, called Beauty Bar, was packed with people. He didn’t know whether the hair dryers around the wall were terribly clever or silly, but they made the place distinctive, he had to admit. A loud thumping music was playing, dance music it was fittingly called.
He was introduced to Monica, who like Sandra had long, dark brown hair, smooth brown skin and thick, luscious eyebrows. Sandra had a more off-kilter face: pretty, but with a kind of permanently inquisitive expression. Monica might have been prettier, she but looked more ordinary nevertheless, Sylvain thought.
“Sandra says you’re really interesting,” Monica said to him, as they stood near the bar waiting for Sandra to get the attention of the bartender.
“I don’t know. A little maybe.”
“Don’t start backing away from it. It doesn’t make you an arrogant prick just to admit a person could find you interesting.”
“I see your point,” he said.
“And you’re definitely a bad boy.” “Bad?”
“I don’t really understand that.”
“She told me what you do for a living. I think that counts as bad. I’m not going to rat you out or anything,” she said laughing. “Besides, some chicas thinking a little badness in a dude is exciting or cool is the oldest story in the world.”
“You’re right about bad, in the sense that what I do is wrong. No way around that. But the last thing I would think about it is that it’s cool. It’s necessary, really.”
“See, Sandra was right. You are interesting.”
Sandra signaled that the drinks had arrived, and Sylvain reached to take his beer from the bar, while Monica and Sandra were drinking cocktails.
The three of them walked over to where the sofas were, and found a space on one of them ample enough for Sandra and Monica to sit down. Sylvain stood, and while Sandra and Monica chatted with one another, he remained silent. A friend of theirs, Cynthia, stopped by to say hello, and Sylvain was introduced, then the women chatted among themselves.
Occasionally Sandra would reach up and clasp his hand. Monica asked him once how he was doing.
“I’m doing fine. Just enjoying watching.”
“Syl the clubber,” she said, and the three on the sofa laughed.
Sandra and Sylvain were having lunch at one of the tables on the sidewalk. “It was extremely sweet to give me a book,” she said.
“You, and even your friends, use the word sweet all the time about me. I don’t know exactly what to think about it. It’s like…dentists should warn their patients about me.”
“But you are sweet. If it makes you feel any better though, I’ll try to find another word. It was thoughtful of you, if that’s okay, to give me this particular book, knowing I grew up out there in the San Bernardino Valley, where the stuff in the famous essay happened.”
The Joan Didion book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, was on the table next to Sandra’s mug of beer.
“I think I like that better,” he said.
“So, you went all the way to Playa del Rey on the bus yesterday to work? That’s amazing.”
“I wanted to see if it might be another fertile territory, especially for times when other ones aren’t producing well.”
“You actually have a strong work ethic, at least when it comes to that.” “I guess. I don’t have a lot of choice though.”
“So you still aren’t going to let me tag along sometime then?” “No, you know I’m not.”
“Still can’t say I understand why.”
“Yes you do. We’ve talked about it enough. But I’ll say it again: this isn’t something I’m proud of doing, and it isn’t something I want you to see me doing.”
“Alright, alright,” she said, “fair enough. “By the way, did you know you were yelling up a storm in your sleep the other night when you stayed over? You were saying things really clearly.”
“What was I saying,” he asked, slightly horrified.
“You were saying, ‘You have to stay outside. You can’t come into the house,’ just as if you were talking to another person.”
He wasn’t surprised. He’d been having that dream forever. He knew it had to do with a time when he was young, and the possibility lingered for several years that their house could be foreclosed upon. But he kept it to himself.
“No idea,” he said.
There was a night he agreed to go to a party at the loft of one of Sandra’s friends. He liked it better when they spent their time alone, but he knew Sandra was keen on her friends, and he ought to be a good sport even if he was never terribly comfortable, and never stopped feeling odd or peculiar. It had only been several weeks, and he had been with her friends only a couple of times, other than the night at Beauty Bar.
Once or twice, he had been asked by friends not completely in Sandra’s confidence, what do you do? He had said that he was doing temp jobs, stocking shelves, or taking inventory, innocuous, and prosaic enough not to invite questions.
At the party however, when he was asked the inevitable question, he changed the answer. “I search for unusual things, and then I sell them. I look for rare or hard to find books, or vinyl albums or occasionally an odd artifact, and then I sell them online to people looking for them. So I spend a lot of time digging through second-hand stores, flea markets, estate sales and such.”
Shortly after, when they were sitting together alone in the window sill of one of the loft’s floor to ceiling windows, Sandra let him know she was quite impressed.
“That was pretty slick,” she said.
In truth, he didn’t have a computer, but he used the ones at the library now and again.
When he had been asked what were some of the rare things that he had found, he cited “a vinyl copy of the XTC album, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball, released under the pseudonym The Dukes of the Stratosphere, because the band was in a dispute with its record label.”
Asked for another, he said, “A copy of the old Life magazine with an interview with Jackie Kennedy after her husband had been assassinated, when she talked about Camelot.”
Sandra confessed in the windowsill that she had found this slightly stunning.
“You know about books, you know about music. There’s a lot you don’t know. But I keep finding more and more you do hidden in there,” she said, pointing her finger at his chest, but then changing her mind, and pointing it at his head.
“Or maybe in there,” she said.
They walked along carrying the grocery bags, talking and joking as they did. They veered down the street to Sandra’s apartment, took the groceries inside and put them away, then they began to prepare the meal. They had some wine, and after dinner, they took themselves into Sandra’s bedroom.
It wasn’t late, and afterwards they lay talking, the lamp on but the light dimmed.
“I guess what I’m trying to say,” she told him, “is that I appreciate how affectionate you are.
You really are an affectionate person.”
“I hope I am,” he said. “I want to be.”
“It makes a difference in how a person feels you know. Psychologically and everything.
Getting affection and having intimacy.”
“I know a lot about it I guess. It’s pretty embarrassing even having to mention largely doing without it such a long time.”
“Everyone goes through spells,” she said.
“Mine has been more…severe than that. That’s what’s embarrassing about it.”
“Well, part of intimacy is being in that place where you feel comfortable enough to share things that might be private, or a little embarrassing.”
“I know. But when you were talking about the effects, psychologically and everything, it hit home a little close you know. I realized I guess…how severe it was.”
“Everybody gets lonely at times. Most people are alone sometimes, for periods of time. I guess I’m not sure exactly what you mean.”
“I say it was severe because…I didn’t even feel human. I didn’t feel like a member of the human race without the things you mentioned. I don’t think of myself that way now though.”
“Right,” was all she said. “It’s so embarrassing.”
“But we’re pretty close now. So maybe things are a little less embarrassing.” “Maybe. Of course.”
He was hesitating, but she could see he was going to say more.
“It was so bad, until I met you…god. Okay, I’m going to tell you this. I had this…in my head, this imaginary person with me all the time. He was a friend. You know, he was interested in me, and curious about the way I make my living and stuff. The secrets, the tricks of the trade you might say. I would explain everything to him. I wouldn’t talk out loud. I wasn’t mumbling like a schizophrenic or anything. I imagined I was having conversations. But it just got to be a part of my life. Now it seems extreme, even ridiculous, even pathetic I guess. I must have needed to create this person though, now that you’ve brought up these psychological needs. And even though it wasn’t real, it never ever seemed unreal.”
She didn’t say anything right away.
“That’s pretty interesting Syl. But I’m getting kind of sleepy. I feel like I need to sleep really badly all of the sudden.”
She turned a little onto her side as she said it, curling up as if to go to sleep. “Oh, okay,” he said.
It was mid-afternoon, and the jazz group on the patio continued to play for brunch. Only half of the tables were occupied. Sylvain sat nursing a cup of coffee not too far away from where the band was. While the band was taking its break, he got up from his chair, picked the cloth Trader Joe’s grocery bag up, and moseyed over to the performers’ area. He stooped over as if he had dropped something, and slipped a case holding a microphone into the grocery bag.
He was halfway down the block from the Cat and Fiddle when he came to a pay phone. He dialed the number, and after thirty seconds or so began to speak.
“Hi Sandra, it’s me again. I know you said you were going to be really busy last week, that’s why I didn’t call. Have you gone out of town or something? I guess I’ll keep trying until we can actually talk. Then we’ll decide when we’re getting together next.”
He had been to the laundromat, but the laundry bag was still resting against the side of the bed half-full. He was lying there staring at the television. Suddenly, he rose up from the bed, went out the door and started up the sidewalk to the pay phone.
“It’s been a couple of weeks, closer to three really. I hope you’re okay and all. If I’ve done something wrong, you can just tell me what it is you know. I just hope you’re okay and everything. I’ll try again at some point. I’ll be thinking about you.”
Sylvain watched the man in the silver shirt and the gold chain, who’d stopped to buy trinkets and novelties from one of the vendors. He followed him afterward, the man taking out a roll of money, peeling off a couple of bills for the Spiderman character doing his shtick on the sidewalk for a group of tourists.
He followed him on until the man stopped in front of Tiny’s bar, seeming to mull whether to enter or not. As Sylvain watched, a couple came out of the bar, and leaned against the wall to smoke a cigarette. He could see then the woman was Sandra.
The man, a little older, maybe the same age, lit a cigarette, and after taking several puffs, handed it to her. She smoked it for a minute and handed it back. Sylvain had never seen her smoke before.
The two put their arms around one another, and that was when Sylvain turned around and walked away.
The next time Sylvain called, he said, “It’s me, Syl again, of course. Sorry I keep bothering you. I wanted to let you know that I saw you the night before last standing in front of Tiny’s with the other man. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have continued to bother you. You could’ve told me Sandra. But I kind of wish we could talk again, if only for a minute or two at least. Just to talk about things you know. But you may not have an interest in being friends. In case you do, I’ll call back a few more times to check.”
A week later, when Sylvain phoned Sandra again, she answered. “Sandra?”
“Hi Sandra. It’s nice to hear your voice.”
“It’s nice to hear yours. But listen, I don’t have a lot of time. I’m supposed to be at Monica’s in less than twenty minutes. But I really wanted to tell you a couple of things. For one, I wasn’t seeing anybody else when I started seeing you. This person, the one you saw me with at Tiny’s the other night is someone I’ve known a long time. He just broke up with his girlfriend, and it had more to do with that than anything with you. But I should have told you sooner. I dreaded it because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, and that’s the truth Syl. But we can still get together if you want, get a drink or something, or lunch.”
“I’d like that.”
“Okay. How about tomorrow at two at our favorite place?” “Great.”
“Great. Then I’ll see you tomorrow Syl.” “See you tomorrow Sandra.”
Sylvain had a glass of beer in front of him, Sandra was sipping a Margarita. “Monica is fine. I’ll tell her you said hello. She likes you.”
“I like her too. Yesterday when I was in Westwood I saw a pair of those expensive headphones she has, the ones she showed me at the party. In fact, the ones in Westwood, I kind of had my eye on.”
“I have to, you know.”
“Okay. By the way, there’s someone else who’s asked about you a couple of times.” “Who’s that?”
“Remember Josh? From the party? The two of you were talking about music. You were telling him about your business. He was really impressed by your musical knowledge. Said he enjoyed it a lot, your little chat.”
“I enjoyed it too. I don’t get many chances to talk about things like that.”
“I can’t believe people still are buying CDs. I don’t get the vinyl either, but I know a lot of people think it’s cool.”
“It has to do with the sound. The fullness of the sound.”
“I’m fine with streaming. But in any case, Josh thinks you’re pretty smart. So do I actually.
I always feel smarter after we’re together. I miss that.”
“I feel slightly like a normal person when I’m around you. I lot of it is just confidence…that I get from you. Saying things like you think I’m smart, whether it’s true of not.”
“Don’t do that, Syl.”
Two men wearing suits had walked through the tables, and now had stopped next to Sylvain and Sandra.
“Hi,” the man in the blue suit greeted them. Together, Sandra and Sylvain returned the greeting.
“Would you be Sandra Rodriguez by any chance?” the man in the blue suit asked. “Yes, I am.”
“I’m Detective Boone, and this is Detective Rankin,” he said, pointing to his colleague in the gray suit.
“May we join you?”
“Sure,” Sandra and Sylvain said together again.
The two detectives pulled chairs from an adjacent table, which no one was occupying at the moment, and sat on each side of the table between them.
“May we ask you something, Ms. Rodriguez?”
“Okay. Just out of curiosity, how did you know I was here?”
“You were on your way out when we came to see you at your apartment, and then we followed you here,” Detective Rankin told her.
“Oh. Why did you want to see me?”
“Do you work for a Mrs. Bernstein?” Detective Boone asked. “Yes. Twice a week.”
“You clean her house twice a week?” “Yes.”
“Excuse me, but that’s a very interesting ring you’re wearing Ms. Rodriguez,” Detective Rankin interrupted. “Would you mind taking it off and letting me have a look?”
Sandra nervously tugged the ring off of her finger and handed it to the detective. The detective examined it closely.
“Ms. Rodriguez, we’re going to have to ask you to come with us,” Detective Rankin said.
“The ring doesn’t belong to you Ms. Rodriguez, it belongs to Mrs. Bernstein.” The detectives got up from their chairs and stood beside her.
“I can explain,” she said.
“You can explain later,” Detective Boone said, “but for now, you’re suspected of committing a theft, and you need to come along with us. Stand up Ms. Rodriguez.”
Then Sylvain stood up. “Don’t,” he said.
The detectives froze, staring at Sylvain. “She didn’t take it. I did.”
“You did?” Detective Boone asked.
“Is that so?” Detective Rankin asked skeptically.
“Yes. She was trying to protect me. I should have spoken up sooner.”
“Now that you’re speaking up, can you tell us why she’s the one who has the ring, and not you?”
“Because I gave it to her. We’ve been going out for a while, and one day when I went to visit her at the Bernstein house, I was snooping around and I found the jewelry. The ring was there in the little jewelry box on the vanity table, and since the box wasn’t even locked, I took the ring. I didn’t plan it, but the idea hit me then that I could give it to her as though I had bought it for her. Surprise her with it. And that is what I did.”
“What is your name sir?” Detective Rankin asked. “Sylvain DuPont.”
“Mr. DuPont you should give some thought to this before you get involved. That’s an expensive ring, and stealing it is a serious crime.”
“But that’s what happened. I told her I hoped she would never wear it at work, because I was afraid it would slip off her finger when she was cleaning and washing. She said she wouldn’t, not in a million years.”
The detectives looked at one another.
“Okay,” Detective Boone said, and the two moved away from Sandra and over to Sylvain.
Sylvain was stretched on his cot in the cell reading, wearing the reading glasses he had only recently got. He took them off, and held them in his hand, and put the book he was reading down in his lap. There was something he wanted to say to his friend.
What I most enjoyed with Sandra was those little everyday conversations you know. Little things that happen in the course of a day. The small, personal things. It was good that she would tell me all the time about the cleaning jobs, especially Mrs. Bernstein. She had told me about the big house in Pacific Palisades, everything about the fancy house, and the fancy neighborhood. I knew practically everything there was about it. It’s ironic, given what I did for a living, that it was my seeming honesty and straightforwardness in the eyes of the police, that made me so convincing. They had little trouble whatsoever believing me. I’m so far off the grid they figured something about me had to be fishy. But it’s all for the best now. I belong here. It’s my form of restitution, moral restitution at least. It’s atonement for the way I’ve lived, and for the things I’ve done. The harm I’ve done to people by stealing from them. It’s not like I would have chosen to be here of course. It’s just that I was physically and morally weary, if that makes any sense at all. But now I have the time to read and think, to figure out how to correct all the things defective about me. I want to figure out a way to reinvent myself, reinvent my life. If there’s a way to do it, that is. I’ve been telling myself there is, and I hope it’s true.
Sylvain slid the glasses on, lifted the book, and began to read again.
Ken O’Steen is from Los Angeles, California. His Dinner at Musso’s, excerpted from a novel-in-progress was included in the anthology, The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers on the Joys of Drinking edited by Charles Coulombe, published by Citadel. Prattlegate, a short story, will appear in New Pop Lit in June. A Few Quirks of Surrender, also a short story, will appear in the September issue of Cleaver Magazine.