Cosmo stood on his porch with only a shirt and pants to protect him from the cold wind blowing. He wanted to call out something. More than that, he wanted to go with her. As he watched her pull out, he realized she was in Janey’s car.
He stood there for a while feeling empty. He considered surprising her at the airport with a bottle of champagne and flowers – giving her a real send-off – but he knew she would not be pleased. He was astute enough to realize that she had been deliberately giving him vague answers as to her future plans; he was not in them.
He slowly walked back into the house and flopped down onto the living room armchair, for once without switching on the television. He pictured the night he could have spent with her had he been sober, and hardly dared believe that he had muffed the chance in exchange for the sensation of alcohol. He tried to convince himself that she only came home with him because she knew he was too drunk to make love. Unfortunately, he could not believe it. It was not like she had nowhere else to stay, and she certainly did not come to sleep on his soiled couch or clean his dirty kitchen. No, he had duffed out, and he had duffed out bad. Even more than sex, he had the impression that he had missed an opportunity. He was not really sure for what, but he knew that had she stayed, life could have been different. In his imagined life with her, the apartment was cleaner, he drank less, and somehow he got a better job. And he knew he would never be able to make her stay because he had so little to offer.
Back in the kitchen, he noticed how clean the sink and dishes looked. He wanted to put the dishes away, but the cupboard was too dirty. He began to clean it. The refrigerator followed, then the stove and the floor. He got a certain satisfaction telling himself that he had planned to do this for a while. The living room and the bedroom were next, the cleaning lasting the whole afternoon. He put quite a few bags of garbage out back, and filled another few with dirty laundry. His resolve to take the latter to a laundromat almost faltered when he remembered that his car was at the bar, but he was aware that he would have to get it sooner or later anyway. There was no one he knew whom he felt like asking for a ride, and he preferred walking during the day than at night. He rationalized that he needed the fresh air. Besides, what else was he to do at home: watch TV?
“Would she go for a walk around her?” he wondered. The neighborhood did not seem the right place for her. “What was her name anyway? Shit! I didn’t even find out her name!”
His anger at himself for forgetting to ask or remember it was swiftly replaced by a feeling of sadness. He knew his own bumbling was at fault and feared it was part of his character that he could not change. But this insight was only a fleeting glimpse, which he quickly banished from his mind before really analyzing it.
He grabbed his jacket and slipped out the door. He surveyed the street as if he were searching for something. Garbage was everywhere and nobody seemed to care. He did not think that he did either. Was it like that in Italy? He knew a lot of Italians, and they did not seem any different from anyone else, especially the ones who had arrived a generation back. He could ill-associate them with art. The recently arrived immigrants – referred to locally as greenhorns – were louder and tackier, but not more so than the Puerto Ricans.
“A year in Italy: she must be rich! Shit, I can’t afford to go to Seaside Heights, not that I’d want to: fuckin’ carnival town. Might as well join the circus as go there… . How come I don’t get to go to Europe? Just because I save minus twenty dollars every week …”
His mood darkened. He wondered what he was doing walking out in the cold instead of watching the game on television with a six-pack. “I bet Janey and Sally put her up to it. They just wanted to fuck with my head. They probably drove to my place, left her car and drove mine back. Just wanted to make me feel bad. I bet they stuck that fat broad in my car too. They think it’s pretty funny, like I’m some kind of lame that don’t know what’s going down. Shit! They ain’t doing no better than me with their sorry secretary jobs. And I don’t see then high-tailing it off to Europe! They’re stuck here just like me… . I bet that lady ain’t going to Europe neither. That was just a story to make me feel bad.”
After he had finally retrieved his car, he drove straight to Janey’s house to check whether her car was there. Then to Janey’s boyfriend’s and Sally’s. “They could be anywhere,” he realized. He considered driving to the airport, but his zeal was already abating. It was a long drive, and the gas money was not negligible. Besides, which one? And Kennedy was so big he would probably never find them anyway. He could call Janey’s mother and … “Ah, fuck it! Like I got nothing better to do but drive around playing detective. Let’em have their fun. As far as I’m concerned that woman spent the night in my bed even if she don’t own up to it. Let them finish their game with someone else.
On the way home, he picked up a six-pack, a bottle of rum and a few groceries. He drank a couple of beers at home, but did not feel like eating. Besides, the kitchen looked so clean, he wanted to leave it so till the next day.
When he woke from his nap, it was already ten o’clock. He hurriedly dressed and drove to the bar, even neglecting to consume his rum.
As he walked in the noise and smoke hit him like a punch. It was unusual for him to arrive so late when things were already in full swing, especially in a relatively sober condition.
“What you been up to?”
“Hey, there’s my man. Put up a dollar!”
Cosmo reserved a challenge on the pool table and sat down on a stool observing the scene. Everything appeared different. Several friends tried joking with him, but he only answered in monosyllables. They thought he was drunker than ever. When it came his time to play, his hands trembled slightly. He missed shots he normally put in and had only sunk one ball when the game ended. He shrugged it off and sat down again to observe.
Perhaps if he had been drunk, he would not have noticed the man. Something about him was just not right. He did not look any different from the other people in his work shirt, dungarees and work shoes. His hair was longish and his beard full, but still he had an aura about him that made Cosmo uneasy. He made sure his own face was out of the light, and observed the other from time to time, not too much. He certainly did not care to make himself suspicious.
Janey came in around eleven.
“Hi Cosmo. How’d you like my cousin?”
“A nice lady. Ya got any more like her?”
“If I do, I don’t know whether I’ll tell you.”
“Why’s that?” he asked suspiciously. “She say something bad about me?”
“To the contrary,” she laughed. “She said you were real sweet.”
“And nothing. Whaddya expect? Her to describe the night in detail.”
“How should I know what you womens talk about when alone,” he said relieved. “Maybe she even recommended me, and you’d like to have your chance.”
“I’da thought you’d prefer her.”
“Nothing personal, but I would. However, I got no choice in the matter now. Can you imagine turning down me and my luxury apartment for some Guineas?”
“But you’re Italian too!”
“Yeah, you got me there. If my parents wouldda just stayed where they were, I’d be romancing her tomorrow. They brought me to the land of opportunity, and mine’s going back to the motherland.”
“Ah c’mon! I can’t remember you having such a hard time here. Don’t tell me you’re in love.”
“I fall in love at least once a week. I’m always in love,” he feigned braggadocio. “But tell me one thing; where’s she going in Italy?”
“How should I know? Italy. I don’t know my way around there.”
“Cut the bull shit. You must have her address.”
“She hasn’t got one yet. She’s gotta look for a place.”
“Yeah, and in what city?”
“Sorry Cosmo, I can’t tell you.”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
“Look, Lisa (“Aha!” he thought. “Lisa.”) said she really liked you, but she made me promise not to give you her address. She just doesn’t want to get involved with any American men now.”
“But I’m Italian!”
“Forget it Cosmo. You ain’t going over there anyway.”
“Ya think I’m gonna spend the rest of my life here?!”
She looked him up and down for a moment and then said, “Yeah, as a matter of fact I do.”
Cosmo was about to make some far-fetched claim, but held back at the last instant. “Maybe you’re right.” And then added after a pause, “But if that’s so, then there’s no harm in telling me where she is.”
“I’d just like to be able to imagine what she’s doing. You know, think about what could have been.”
Janey was taken aback by his last statement, not so much by the contents – Cosmo was apt to say anything at anytime – but by the texture of his voice. It’s sadness and longing revealed a part of him she had never believed existed. The self-confident, good-looking clown had vanished, and his very naked vulnerability evoked for a moment the same sensation in her.
“She’ll kill me if she finds out. You promise you won’t visit her there?”
“With what? Do I look like a millionaire?”
She knew from Sally that he never had a dime to spare.
“Okay. She’s in Sienna.”
Cosmo stared blankly. “Where’s that?”
“In Italy, where else?”
“Yeah I know in Italy, but where in Italy?”
“How should I know? Do I look like some kind of geography book?”
“No, but she musta talked about where she was going.”
“Look Cosmo, gimme a break, will ya? I’ve already told you more than I should’ve.”
“All right, but one more thing. Is she really gonna stay over there indefinitely? I mean, does she got so much money that she just wouldn’t have to come back and work?”
“So that’s it,” she looked at him disgustedly. “You think she’s rich. I shouldda known you were up to something.”
As she turned to walk away, Cosmo protested, “I could give a shit how much money she’s got! I just wanna know how long she can afford to stay over there.”
She turned and faced him angrily. “And what for? So you can treat her like you did Sally? Whaddaya expect from her anyway? That’s she’s gonna make life better for you, clean up after you and pay your bills? That you won’t have to go to work anymore?”
He wavered between giving her a serious answer and telling her to go fuck herself.
“What do I expect from her?” he paused. “That she ain’t a lame bitch like most of the broads her.” He almost muttered the last sentence, but held back at the last moment. Then he said, “Nothing, absolutely nothing! And – don’t tell me – that’s just what I’m gonna get from her too.”
She shrugged her shoulders and walked away.
Cosmo began to regret that he had not consumed his rum. Fairly sober, the atmosphere in the bar depressed him. He ordered a rum and coke and then another, and wished he had had the sense to at least put the rum in his car when he left home. It was not the first time that he would end up spending a lot more money at the bar because he had not drunk enough beforehand. He rationalized that the little extra money he spent was not going to make or break him anyway (he was good at rationalizing). Muttering to himself, he pursued his alcoholic stupor and entered the hazy world of its comforts.
Sunday morning Cosmo liked to sleep a long time, not so much for the rest as that he hated Sundays. They seemed like wasted days, because he never really knew what to do, especially in winter. At least in the summer he could go downtown and sit across from the city jail. There he would watch the inmates play basketball on the jailhouse roof in a court enclosed in a huge cage. Occasionally he would see an acquaintance and howl greetings.
He was relieved that he was alone this Sunday, that there was no floozy in his bed who he had to kick out before he could relax. He had to get up early to take a piss, but quickly returned to the warmth of his bed to catch a few more winks. He finally roused himself around eleven and walked to the corner to buy the paper and some groceries. After a long breakfast, he fixed himself some more coffee and read about the previous day’s atrocities.
On the front page was a picture of a weeping twenty year old who had accidentally (?) shot her policeman boyfriend with his own gun. “Accident my ass,” he grunted as he relished the details. He would have liked to have seen his face as he got it. He searched in vain for an interview with the cop’s mother or father, so he could hear what they thought should be done with the girl. The paper usually contained such juicy bits.
There was a good article on a preacher who was arrested for theft. Among the articles he had illegally appropriated was a van upon which he painted Jesus’ picture and his love for the scriptures. In the advice column there was a letter from someone who wanted to know if – now that they were sending women into space – they were doing sex experiments there. Cosmo howled with laughter as he tried to imagine Sally Ride performing lewd acts with her fellow astronauts. “That must be those maneuvers they’re always talking about.”
A sixty-year-old widower wrote that he had been having sex with his two year younger sister. He claimed that they were not hurting anyone and if it were thus not acceptable.
“Fuckin’ perverts! There’s too many nuts loose in this country,” Cosmo grumbled.
The story of some Mafia figure being extradited to the U.S. brought his spirits back down. “Fuckin’ Italy! What does she want to do there anyway?”
He quickly turned to the sports section. There would be a couple of good games on that afternoon and there was no dearth of material describing the impending events. He was glad that the Giants had been knocked out of the running. That had shut up a lot of loud mouths at work. The Yankees were going to win, no two ways about it. The only question was by how much.
That evening, drunk as usual, Cosmo stumbled into the bar. He was not in an especially good mood. He had an empty, unsatisfied feeling from having sat in front of his television during a sunny Sunday afternoon. The sensation had nagged him to the extent that he had even considered going out. If he had remained home, it was only because he did not know where to go. The nearest place where it was suitable to take a walk was an hour’s drive away.
He remembered weekends years before when he had often gone camping with a friend in New York or Pennsylvania. After the friend had left for somewhere out west, he went a few more times with several different people, but no one he knew was really enthused about the idea. He was loathe to go alone, and gradually discontinued the practice. Now he recalled how he had looked forward to those excursions and how refreshed he had felt upon his return.
He won and lost some games of pool, drank some beer, and bullshitted a bit. His angry mood kept him somewhat sober and apart from his jovial acquaintances. He sat in a corner as he was wont to do of late and observed. Something was up; he was sure of it. The man he had espied the evening before was there again, and Cosmo was certain that he had signaled to another suspicious character across the room. And suddenly he realized why they made him feel uneasy.
Sam was nervous. Cosmo had wondered at the ease with which he had beaten him at pool. Now he watched as Sam slipped a package to his girlfriend. She left soon afterwards. Sam went to the men’s room followed by one of the agents.
“Pretty clever,” Cosmo thought.
A half our later she was back. Cosmo wondered whether they were the only three who knew that Sam would get busted that evening.
He avoided looking at anyone, especially Sam or the cops, and slipped out. Normally he would have liked to stay and watch the bust: better than television. He feigned not noticing the other detectives waiting in cars parked down the street and headed in the direction of home. Only after several blocks did he change course, arriving ten minute’s later at Sam’s girlfriend’s apartment.
He knew that he did not have much time, but was betting that the cops would first go to Sam’s apartment before searching hers. He parked his car around the corner, took out a flashlight and some tools, and walked to the house. It was a two-family house in a neighborhood not very different from his own. He prayed that the neighbors’ apathy, fear and/or noise of their television would prevent them from interfering.
Cosmo was surprised at his own audacity as he walked down the alley to the back of the house. The back porch door had been in a state of ill-repair for years and was easy to force open. She lived on the first floor, and Cosmo only had to break a window leading into the kitchen to gain entry.
He began to search frantically, trying to remain as quiet as possible. He heard the neighbors upstairs stirring and paranoia drove him to the point of fleeing. A dog barking or a car driving by made him freeze.
When he found the package after a half hour, he was sure the strain on his nerves had taken five years off his life. There was another much smaller package with coke, which he left for the cops to find. That would keep them off his trail if she got busted. He slipped the package with the bills into his jacket and stole back to his car. He had barely closed the door when he saw the cops round the corner headed for her apartment. He trembled as he started his car and drove home.
Cosmo could not remember an evening being so sober as he pulled down all the shades in his apartment. He slowly opened the package sitting on the floor away from any windows and counted his booty. He wanted to scream with joy: ten thousand, twenty, forty – $103,458. Sam would kill him if he knew, and the cops were certainly going to be madder than hell. They thought they would get the money, reporting only little of it if any to their superiors. And perhaps Sam owed it to his supplier. In any case, he would have to lay low for a while.
He slept poorly that night with the money under his pillow, rising frequently to count it. He took out his long-neglected backpack and sleeping bag, checked their condition and put them back into the closet. He was going to leave, but he knew he could not do it just yet without arousing suspicion.
He showed up for work the next day looking drawn and fatigued.
“Another hard night, huh Cosmo?” his foreman asked sarcastically.
He tried to act surprised when fellow workers told him of Sam’s bust. Where had he been? And Cosmo told a story of how he had overdone it a bit with his rum and had gone home and puked his guts out. Far from surprising people, they wondered why it did not happen more often. Besides, he had not been looking too well lately.
Cosmo bought only a six-pack on the way home that night. He sensed that he needed to stay sober and get things arranged.
“No rum tonight, Cosmo?”
“Nah, I think I’m gonna try and cut down a little, give my liver a vacation.”
“That’s good for you, but bad for my business.”
“Ah c’mon. I know you ain’t suffering for lack of customers. And I just wanna give ya some time to spend all that money you’ve been making off me.”
“Don’t worry about that. Uncle Sam’s doing that for me.”
“I hear ya!”
He considered purchasing a better quality beer, but was afraid of arousing suspicions. The chances were slight that someone would visit him and see the empty bottles, but he was not gambling.
At home he took out his money again and counted it several times. He contemplated whether it was safer to leave it there or take it with him. He finally opted for leaving it there; if someone suspected that he had it, he would never get far anyway.
In the evening paper he read of the bust. “The police suspect that someone else was involved as only some of the contraband was recovered.”
Cosmo could imagine the police’s anger. Sam would surely believe that they had it anyway and were just not reporting it. However, if they did question him too harshly about it, Sam and his girlfriend might part on not too friendly terms.
That evening in the bar the talk was all about Sam’s bust. Cosmo listened intently to the details and claimed how much he regretted not having been there to witness it.
“Shit! That ain’t fair. One time something exciting happens around here and I miss it.”
“You should go easier on the rum. Then you’s be sober enough to take notice of what happens here.”
“Fuck that. I’m supposed to give up my evenings’ entertainment for months just in the hope of seeing something like that once a year?”
“Can’t talk to an alcoholic.”
“Who’s an alcoholic? I always heard it’s someone who can’t function normally in society.”
“You function normally?” the other laughed.
“Hey, I work and pay my bills, and that’s a lot more than a lot of people do. All the rest is just a matter of style.”
“Okay, you’re not an alcoholic. You just drink a bottle of rum a day.”
“Does everyone here know my life story?”
“Everyone here knows everyone’s life story.”
Cosmo left as soon as he could without arousing suspicion. He went home, got out an old atlas that had somehow come into his possession, and studied the maps of Europe. He had always wanted in the back of his mind to go there, and now with some funds and a certain lady living there… .
For the next week he persisted outwardly in his old habits, but ten days later neglected to set his alarm. He awoke around ten, had a leisurely breakfast and then drove to work, arriving shortly before noon.
“Where’ve you been?” the foreman demanded.
“My alarm didn’t go off, and I gotta a headache; you don’t have to shout.”
“Keep it up and you won’t have to set your alarm anymore.”
The other workers chided him, but he shrugged it off. Very few people stayed at the job very long, so no one was surprised when a colleague seemed to lose interest in remaining employed. When Cosmo arrived late again the week after, the foreman gave him his walking papers.
“Stick the job up your fuckin’ ass!” Cosmo feigned anger. He stomped out and drove home singing. He gave notice to his landlord and sold a couple pieces of furniture to a second-hand shop.
Janey approached him in the bar one evening. “Cosmo, I hear you got fired.”
“So what else is new?”
“You gonna be collecting?”
“Nah, I got a letter from a buddy of mine from the army. He’s got a small construction company up in Maine, and he asked me if I wanted a job.”
“Maine? I’ve never been there, but it sounds good. It’ll be good to get out of here for a while if nothing else.”
“Yeah, I need a change of pace. Now I’m glad I got fired. I was really in a rut there, drinking too much and that lousy factory.”
“Wish I was going somewhere,” and then quickly added, “No, that wasn’t an offer to join you.”
“Ha! I didn’t think it was.”
“By the way, I got card from Lisa. She’s doing real well and really likes it there.”
“Lucky her. Wish I was going to Italy… . Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: she’s a little out of my class. I should aim lower.”
“You said it, not me.”
“Ah forget it. I’m glad she’s enjoying herself.”
“When are you gonna leave?”
“Oh, in a few days when I got everything organized. But do me a favor, will ya? Don’t go telling nobody about this until I’m gone. I’m not in the mood to answer a lot of questions.”
“Who do you owe money?”
“There you go, always think the worst about me.”
“Haven’t I any reason?”
“I won’t answer. Why don’t you buy me a drink? I’ve been a little short on cash since I ain’t been working.”
“That’s probably the truest thing you ever said to me.”
Cosmo laughed and accepted the drink.
He did not have many belongings, and most of those that he did have were not the kind that he was anxious about retaining. He told people in the bar he was selling some things cause he needed the money, and thus managed to dispose of a tennis racket, some clothes and a few other odds and ends. Most of the household goods had come from yard sales or the Salvation Army, and he decided it was not worth his trouble to even move them out of the apartment.
He had planned to wait longer before skipping town, but he was too impatient once all preparations were taken care off. He went to New York City and bought different kinds of travelers’ checks at different banks, never buying too much at any one place. He opened two small accounts at two banks, which had overseas branches, and rented a safety deposit box for the remaining money.
He was ready. He checked to see that the street was empty, then locked the door behind him and put his pack in the car. He stopped at the post office and mailed the key to his landlord, and then joyfully drove out of the city. He hoped he would never see it again.
He drove to Newark where he first visited a used car dealer. The car was sold for even less than it was worth, but Cosmo would have given it away for nothing if he had been asked. He almost took a taxi to the airport, but then changed his mind. He put the pack on his back and walked to a bus stop. He fully realized what money meant to him; without it, he would be back where he just left, and he could not imagine a worse fate. He was determined to be miserly even to the extent of cutting down on drinking, and this determination even amazed himself (admittedly, discipline was not one of his strong points).
He observed the garbage on the streets with relish. He was leaving it behind, and the more desolate the scene was, the happier he became. A large, decrepit but strong-looking wino was sitting on a curb yelling obscenities, and Cosmo cheered him as his bus drove by. He chuckled to himself, and was forced to bite his cheeks to keep from laughing hysterically. He felt so good he was afraid he might be arrested for doing drugs. That thought sobered him up a little, but he was still so elated that he even greeted the policemen in Newark’s train station. He sauntered through the building, amazed at how big it was: a remnant of a time when railroad travel was usual, its presence hardly justified by the small amount of traffic that it handled, even with the addition of bus company offices.
Cosmo caught the shuttle bus to the airport and got off at international departures. He bought his ticket and then walked back and forth through the building. The time just passed too slowly. He bought a book to read, but just could not concentrate. He was at the gate long before boarding time.
Years later he would look back at that day and his flight with wonder. He was not sure if he had been aware of the consequences; he so little suspected what would happen. And he wondered what would have happened had he not taken that step, although the answer was painfully clear.