A Young Man’s Folly
Jim Tottering was a man of common looks and talents who, at thirty-five, had given up his aspirations of succeeding in either vocational or romantic pursuits. Let younger men cling to their dreams of Someday and their visions of an attainable Paradise. He had long before cast aside such fantastical thoughts of childhood. Yet, it was an annoying reminder of the past that intruded into his thoughts now as he stared out at the street below.
He had lived in what he called “The Castle” for three years now. It was a boarding house for dead-enders who’d been taken in by an elderly Polish woman who’d never had children of her own. Each day she cheerfully made the beds and fixed flavorless dinners for “her boys,” most of whom were well over fifty years old.
It had been a disturbing day down at the bookstore, marked by the appearance of a strange young woman dressed in black. She’d looked like an eclipse of the moon as she’d strolled past the white shelves and smiled invasively at him. It was with a heavy tension in his chest and a fluttering of the stomach that he’d met this intruder, who’d walked right up to him with that damned smile of hers. She was a nursing student at the university and needed a certain medical book. He’d led her to the appropriate section and placed the book in her hands. She’d thanked him silently, putting her hand on his and staring deeply, too deeply, into his eyes.
It had shaken him at the moment and now, in its memory, brought back all the unwanted flutterings of the past. But it was nothing. The woman had had gall. Tomorrow she’d be forgotten and his life would be back to normal.
It was with this self-assurance that Jim calmly gazed to the stoop below. A neatly dressed man, bag in hand, was presenting himself to Mrs. Kzinski. What’s he doing here? Jim wondered. He was a young man, in his twenties, and wore a freshly pressed suit (it might have been new) that seemed quite out of place on the Castle steps. It was soon apparent that this man would be Parker’s replacement.
A month had passed since the old man across the hall had come to his long expected death. (Mrs. Kzinksi had found Parker lying in his bed chalky-faced, a back issue of Life Magazine resting face down on his bare chest). His demise had left Jim pondering by his window for many hours that night, realizing, with a sort of grim acceptance, that what had come to Parker awaited all the Castle’s residents, himself included. Death would be their final tranquilizer.
It was at the dinner table that Jim met the new man for the first time (another Jim, he was quickly designated as Jim L. to avoid confusing references to the two men). He was sitting beside Jim and causing smiles to creep on to the faces of the other residents, even Gibbons, the aging invalid who had long ago let Misery take hold of his facial muscles. He was a man who loved to talk, this new man, and he burst forth with stories of his travels (he had even taken to riding the rails for a while) as if he were relating it all to his long lost friends.
“You see, we’d just finished up a long ride to Frisco, the three of us, Baker, me, and this old man Kravitz – said he was a Kraut soldier in the war, snuck away to the States but always missed things back home. Anyway, there we were, the three of us, and Kravitz mumbling the whole time about the Fatherland and all, and there all along, without our even knowing it, we’d been riding in a car full of these cases of sauerkraut, only by the time we’d found out it was too late. Kravitz was just dying to get at it, saying he hadn’t had good sauerkraut in years; ever since he’d come to the States he’d been searching for the real thing but what he’d found had never quite measured up in the mouth to his memories. So, the time comes, we got to jump out – you got to jump before you hit the yards -- and there’s Kravitz fumbling for his can opener. Baker and me are all set and take to pulling the old man out the door with us but he just won’t budge. You know how Germans can get. Anyway, after a couple of minutes we shake some sense into the guy and he agrees, with these big sad eyes of his, that it’s what we got to do.
“So, Baker and me roll – we thinking all along that Kravitz is right behind us. We’re rolling in the grass and the old fart isn’t there. We look all around, and he’s just not with us. We take to walking along the tracks in the shadow of the train, but no Kravitz to be found anywhere. We finally get down to the yard after a spell, walking carefully you know what with our shaggy appearances and satchels across our backs – yardsmen are notoriously hateful of ragamufflins like us -- and wouldn’t you know, there’s old Kravitz with a clean shirt and tie on (God knows where he scrounged them up, but had saved them for just such an occasion probably, knowing the old man) and he’s making his pitch to one of the rail jerks, explaining that he’s an inspector from Grandma’s Old Fashioned Sauerkraut Company, or whatever it was, and he’s got his hands on a case of the good stuff, telling them he’s got to take a sample to make sure the warehouse back east got the shipment right.
“Now these yardsmen are no fools and seeing this old man clean from waist to neck but shaggy up above with a week’s worth of stubble and ragged trousers, they just don’t know what to make of it – they see the hunger in those swollen orbs of his. Anyway, all at once they just break up, howling, can’t stop, and the old man slips under them, hanging on to that case for dear life. The boys stop laughing long enough to chase after this old rail bum. Baker and me are hiding till the commotion’s over, then make for this spot -- an old ravine where we always used to make camp. We’re huffing and puffing, making blazes towards the spot and when we get there, what do you know? There’s old Kravitz smiling as pretty as a baby, this dirty red bandana around his neck so as not to spoil the tie, his face full, dripping with the juice from that sour stuff. We’re just standing there looking at this German ape when he purrs like an old kitten: “Is it mein friends, is the one – Hail Deutschland, I’m home.” It was the funniest sight I’ve ever seen sitting there amidst the mud and rubble and this shaggy old bum making like he was dining in Chez Paul’s or something.”
The old boys chuckled a bit but only long enough for Jim L. to catch his breath and start another one. Jim T.’d never seen anything like this boy. Not in a long time anyway. It reminded him of someone he’d known in his younger days.
He went to bed right after supper that night, taking a pull or two from his bottle, the day’s events washed away by the inviting chatter of the newcomer.
The next day was worse. The young woman had come back and, while Jim L. was reeling through his stories at dinner, Jim T.’s head was spinning in confusion. What did that woman want from him? She’d come back, he’d decided, only to intimidate him. She’d seen through him and had been laughing inside when she’d come up to him and asked if he’d like to take her to a concert that weekend. What had she taken him for, a slug? It was the grand put on that women loved to pull and what a more likely subject for it than old Jim? He would have been content going about his work, reading his books, taking an occasional tug on old Johnny Walker and now he was content to just listen to the old stories of adventure that Jim L. wove. What did he need with a woman again?
It was up in Jim L.’s room that night that Jim, invited in by the new man, found more out about the kid. He was planning to get married to some young, proper gal and was just staying at the Castle temporarily to see if the two of them would work out.
“I don’t know, Jim, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know if I can handle this nine to five gig.” (Her father’d gotten him a job in a brokerage house). “Now Susie’s something else. She just might be worth laying it all down for. What about you, Jim? You’re still young. What’re you, in your thirties? How come you never got hitched?”
“I’ve had my chances, boy, I’ve had ‘em.” He sipped his neighbor’s gin and stared sadly into the younger man’s eyes. “They always seemed to slip away, just like that. They’re too much trouble, cause more pain than it’s worth. I’ll tell you something, though. All those stories you tell, it reminds me of a time…”
“Aww, they’re nothing, a lot of fluffed up air. Not that I didn’t do my share of traveling the last couple years.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I did a bit of it myself when I was younger. But you get old, worn out.”
“That’s because you never stopped, Jim! What’d you tell me about – New York, California, Arizona. And every time it wasn’t the place you were after, it was some woman.”
Jim T. was staring out the window, remembering the women. They were like the shivering green leaves on the trees there that he could almost reach out and touch but which, when he tried to grab, would wrinkle up and float silently to the ground. Memories.
“If you don’t mind me saying, Jim, I know we don’t know each other that well, but the problem with you was you were always putting all your stakes on women.”
“Well, what about you with all your running around? You mean there weren’t any women in all that?”
“Yeah, yeah, there were a few. But it’s over now. Like I said it’s all just air, water under the bridge, as they say. I never met one that made me feel like Susie.”
“A rich girl.”
“Yes, she is, but, no, it’s not that. Well, you know, you must have had the feeling before.”
“Sure, sure. Every time it seems now, looking back on it.”
“See, see what I mean? You were always laying too much on each of them. You did your running from yourself, trying to hide in someone else. It was different with me.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“I was searching for myself.”
Jim started laughing at the younger man. What a salesman.
“No, really, really, Jim. That traveling, those reckless days are over now. You’ll see. With Susie now, what else could I want?”
Jim T. swallowed his drink in between fits of laughter, opened the door and looked seriously at the younger man. “You’ll learn, boy, you’ll learn.”
He slunk back to his room, not bothering to turn the light on. There was a moon peering through the window and shining light on the daisies that Mrs. Kzinksi’d placed on his desk the day before, for atmosphere, she’d said. He thought of Jim L.’s words and scowled. Searching for himself. Had he bothered to look under the mattress? He was tired, rested his head against the headboard, feeling a thousand years old. He remembered the flowers he’d sent (the ones in the window haunted him). Flowers he’d sent to all the women and how they’d always seemed the kiss of death in his various relationships, time and time again. Some guys never learned.
The next day the woman in black (Violet was her name) came into the store right after lunch. She strolled right up to Jim, no coyness this time. “So, did you think about it? We could have a great time!”
It wasn’t his mind that said yes and he didn’t know why he told her “Yes, yes, sure.” There was something quite stirring about this woman and it was with a mixture of regret and alarm that he watched her smile and walk smoothly out of the store that day.
At dinner that night there was a surprise. Jim L. had brought his woman, Susie, to the house and they were both beaming as they stood before the residents.
“My friends, I have an announcement to make before you partake of Mrs. Kzinksi’s delicious meal tonight. I know that I don’t really know any of you all that well, being new here, but you’ve made me feel at home, so…I might as well get it over with. Susie and I have decided to get married.”
The men seated around the table were spouting their congratulations for this young man. He’d brought life to the house in his short stay there, perhaps a spark of hope to the old men whose flow of blood had been near to stopping just days before.
Instead of the young couple going out to celebrate, they accepted Mrs. Kzinski’s offer to dine with them that night (she was as taken with the young man as the others and even took a sip, just a sip of the wine Jim L. had brought to celebrate – “It’s good for the heart once in a while,” she said). Jim L. took his seat next to the older Jim, his fiancée on his other side. Jim L. took a nudge at Jim, whispering, “Well, I did it, old man, what am I getting myself into?” Jim smiled back and lifted his glass for a toast. “Here’s to the happy couple and the joy of youth!” This was followed by an assortment of hurrahs and moans as the old men apparently remembered lost days of their own.
Dinner that night was unusually quiet, although not unhappily so. Jim L. seemed a different man next to this pretty young woman, a bit more modest. The old men just stared at the beaming couple, watching their own memories flash past.
Afterwards, Jim T. was creeping into the dark night, sneaking past the snuggling couple on the porch when the younger man called to him.
“What’s this, Jim, trying to get by without a word?” Jim stopped in his tracks and turned toward the silhouetted figures.
“Jim. Aren’t you going to kiss the bride for luck?”
Jim bent and swiftly kissed her on the cheek, his own cheeks blazing red.
“I don’t know, Jim,” she said, giggling to her fiancé. “With good looking men like Jim around, and seeing how we’re not married yet, maybe I could still get a quick fling in, what do you say?”
Jim L. winked at the older man. “Oh, fine, that’s fine with me.” He was laughing with Susie in that full, hearty voice of his. “Tell me, Jim, what am I getting myself into!”
Jim was silent, embarrassed for himself. “Well, I’ve got to be going. Congratulations, congratulations to both of you.”
He turned and shuffled down the street.
"That’s it, Dawber, kill the son of a bitch!” the old man cried, nearly falling off his barstool. It was a dark, smoky bar, just right for Jim’s mood.
“Five bucks says Johnson don’t get the pass off this time,” another voice said.
Jim drank between, but not with, the men who smoked their cigars, spilled their whiskies, and cheered the football players on. The drinks seemed to slide right down his throat that night…one, two, three…until he had suddenly lost track.
He awoke the next morning with a pounding head and bulging eyes. “Uh, Mister Conner, I won’t be able to make it in today. Feeling a little under the weather. Stomach’s acting up again.”
“Oh, really, Jim? Stomach again, eh? You couldn’t get much under the weather today – it’s raining sheets out there! But, Jim, you know I’ve got to tell you something. One more time, Jim, I don’t like to tell you this, but we got a business to run, one more time this month and we’re gonna have to let you go. It’s not something I enjoy you understand but it’s not up to me. I’m just a guy with a job to do like you and I got to think about that. You’re a good man, Jim. We’d hate to lose you.”
Jim’s head pounded all the more now.
“Let me tell you something, Jim. I never told anyone down at the shop but my old man died from the bottle. So it hurts me to see a good man like you…well, forget it. No lectures. I’ll see you tomorrow, right? Bright and early.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday and I’m not scheduled till Monday.”
“Right, Jim, that’s right. Jeez, guess I had a drop too much myself last night. Just take it easy on the stuff, will ya’?”
“Sure, Mr. Conner.” He was ready to hang up already. “On yeah, Jim, one more thing. What do you want me to tell that friend of yours when she comes in looking for you this afternoon?” His knees were trembling as he walked up the steps, then stopped, checking the scrawl on the paper against the numbers on the door. Yep, this was it. He swept his hair back with his left hand and then, hesitating for a second, pushed the buzzer. In a moment her voice came over, crackling, “Is that you, Jim?” “Uh, yeah, yeah. Right on time, huh?” “I love punctuality in a man,” she said, and laughed. “Hold on a sec, I’ll buzz you in.”
Jim grabbed the knob at the buzz and walked through the doorway. It had been a long, long time.
They were sitting in a café, the cool evening breeze chilling him just a bit. They stared at one another over a candle and clinked their wine glasses. He had forgotten the thrill of a woman, her scent, her smile, the excitement of that first touch. She leaned over and kissed him lightly. He pulled back after a second and turned solemn. “Violet, I have a confession to make.” She laughed at his seriousness. “Don’t tell me. You’re not a virgin? I’m so disappointed.” She smiled, squeezing his hand. He wasn’t laughing. “What is it? Is something bothering you? Is it me? Am I too aggressive?” She pouted. “Men always seem to think I’m too aggressive. It makes them feel inadequate or something….” “No, no, it’s not that.” “So, you don’t think I’m aggressive. Then what, what is it?” “Well, nothing really, just that, I know it’s only the first time we’ve been out together and well, I feel great being with you, but….” “But? Oh, dear.” “No, no, it’s not you at all. It’s me. I’m sort of confused. And being with you makes me feel…I don’t know. It’s just that…you’re the first woman I’ve been out with in a long time.” “So?” “So, I’m just a little nervous. Maybe I’m not doing this right.” “You’re doing just fine.” “You don’t think I’m acting a little funny?” “Funny? Would you stop! I find you very attractive. That’s why you’re here and I’m here. You don’t think I was hanging around the bookstore just because I read that much!” “Well, yeah, but there are so many other guys, guys more your age and….” “That’s enough! Let’s go.” “Where?” “To my apartment.” They were sitting by the fireplace, sipping wine. Violet was resting her head against Jim’s chest. He ran his fingers through her long black hair. She looked up at him. “I’m getting sleepy, Jim. Why don’t we move into the other room?” “Well, uh, it’s getting kind of late. Maybe I should be going.” She smiled at him. “Don’t worry, Jim. I won’t bite you.” She led him by the hand to the bedroom. After that night there was no controlling it. He’d been sucked in again, he felt, and the results could only lead to pain, pain, pain, again. Not that he had any immediate cause to worry. Violet seemed so wrapped up in him as he was in her. They began to spend every evening together while he continually felt himself sinking, sinking. The younger Jim sensed a change in his neighbor. “I don’t know what it is, man, but were you just smiling there for a second?” Jim T. fit the key into the lock of his door. “Must be a woman, huh?” Jim turned around to face the younger Jim. “Good to see you again, Jim,” he said, and closed the door behind him. It was the night before Jim T.’s birthday. He’d accepted his neighbor’s invitation to take him out for a couple of drinks. (Jim L. was going out of town the next day – it was some sort of meeting that his future father-in-law wanted him to attend). Jim T. felt kind of guilty for being so aloof to young Jim of late. It was a disco bar, one of Jim L.’s current hangouts. The two men drank and laughed at the women with their flashy dresses and cool smiles. “They’re like peacocks, aren’t they, Jim, even the men with those gold chains and everything? Look at their hair, all the same – it’s like there’s a factory somewhere in the city where they produce them. Incredible.” The older Jim sipped on his Johnny Walker, some of it dripping down the collar of his shirt. “It’s the game, Dad, the game.” The younger man’s eyes were suddenly distant. Then he jumped right back at Jim. “So, how’s Violet? Okay, I guess. Haven’t seen you around much lately.”
He laughed weakly. “Yeah, she’s okay.”
“You really like her, huh? Well, that’s good. You need something like that.” The younger man stared into his beer.
“Oh, great, great.” He smiled at the older Jim, then the smile faded. “Well, to be honest, we had a little tiff the other night.”
“Really? That’s too bad.”
“Oh, it was nothing serious, really. It’s just I’ve been getting some pressure down at the office lately. One of the big boys and me don’t get along too well. Bad chemistry, that’s all. I don’t know if I’m really cut out for all that hobnobbing, playing up to them, you know? Anyway, I guess I took it all out on her.
“But it’s your birthday, old man. We’re not here to cry on each other’s shoulders! Here’s to youth, eternal youth.” They clinked their glasses half-heartedly.
The old woman was squabbling with the delivery boy on the steps. Her English wasn’t so hot.
“Listen, Lady, I’ve got to deliver these today! Here’s the address right here. Two oh ninety seven. This is two oh ninety seven, right? For the guy named Jim Tree… I can’t make out the last name.”
The woman’s eyes brightened. “Jeem?”
“Si, right, Jim.”
“Jim be back later. You come?”
“No, Lady, you don’t understand! I got twenty-three more orders waiting in the truck. Can’t you just take ‘em and give ‘em to him when he gets home? I’d really appreciate it, okay?”
“Now you’re catching on, just give ‘em to old Jim when he gets in, comprendo?” He pushed the package into her hands. “Thanks a lot, Lady!” he yelled as he jogged back to his truck. The old woman just shrugged, pushed her glasses back up her nose and walked up the stairs, huffing and puffing as she went. She came to Jim’s room, pulled her ring of keys from her apron pocket, opened the door a crack and carefully placed the package inside.
Violet threw her arms around Jim, kissed him and stood back a step. “Happy birthday, Jim.” She looked at him oddly, as if expecting something. “Well?”
“How’d you like them?”
“Oh, they were two of the best lips I’ve ever tasted.”
“Not the kiss, the…flowers?”
Her smile quickly faded. “You mean you didn’t get them? God, I’m going to call that place first thing in the morning and give them a piece of my mind!”
“You sent me flowers?”
“But you didn’t even get them!”
He took her into his arms and whispered: “It doesn’t matter, Violet, it doesn’t matter.” He pulled her close to him, feeling the warmth flow from her body into his, thinking of how it would be, again, sitting in his cold room alone, just Johnny Walker and him, knowing that that day would soon come. He held her tighter. It was only a matter of time.
It was three days later that young Jim came dragging up the Castle steps. He stopped at the dinner table for a second, then proceeded silently up the stairs. The old woman called after him: “Jeem, no eat?” The weary traveler leaned over the railing and called down: “I’m not hungry right now, Momma. Thanks.”
Mrs. Kzinksi just shrugged, mumbling in Polish to herself, then turned eagerly to the others, a spoon in her gruel (in truth, a casserole of unknown origin) asking “More, more?” She was answered with only groans. Then, there was a resounding thump from upstairs, followed by the sound of Jim cursing.
Jim T. was the first to make it up the stairs, followed by Mrs. Kzinski who came, breathing hard.
Young Jim was rubbing his head where a small lump was already starting to rise. “Mrs. Kzinksi, what the hell are these? He pointed to the fallen package she’d placed in front of his door three days earlier.
“For you, Jeem.” She smiled. “Is present?”
He ripped the wrapping off of the package. “What is this, some kind of joke? Who’d send dead flowers?”
“It was a mistake,” Jim T. said.
“You don’t have to tell me. I nearly killed myself on those fucking things!”
Mrs. Kzinksi crossed herself and wagged her finger at him, barking first in Polish, then in English. “Feelthy, feelthy, you no talk feelthy in my house! You talk feelthy you no live in my house, you hear!” She turned and waddled angrily down the stairs, mumbling.
“What?” Young Jim was still watching the old lady bound down the stairs.
She sent them on my birthday. Cute, huh? They must have brought them to the wrong Jim.”
“But how’d they get inside?”
“I don’t know. But listen. I’ve got a new bottle of Walker. Come help me crack it. We’ll celebrate your coming home and the start of a brilliant career!”
“What’s gotten into you? What’re you so happy about all the sudden?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, pouring his neighbor a drink. “I just figured I’d try being happy for a while. You know. Play the game.”
“Right, right.” Jim L. downed his drink.
“I nearly got canned, Jim,” the younger man said.
“Almost, but not quite. It’s shaky right now. I don’t know how it started…hey, pour me another will ya’…I just got crazy when Susie called.”
“Something happen to her?”
The younger man laughed and bit down on an ice cube. “Something. You might say that. She called from L.A.”
“Yeah, L.A. She says she’s staying with relatives for a while, says she wants to postpone the wedding – maybe she got cold feet.” He looked searchingly into Jim’s eyes. “She’ll be back, though.” He started mumbling into his drink, his confident face dropping…”You think you know someone and then this. It just got me so damned burned! She just took off, just like that, not a word, not a hint! I never suspected anything….Well, I blew it in Boston. Got so damned plastered before the meeting. I got to looking around at all those guys in their gray suits and wondered what I was doing there – they all looked like puppets, wooden puppets. And there was Murphy, sitting right in front of me. I guess I laughed or belched or something and he turned around and hung me with those steel gray eyes of his, that goddamned patronizing look! God, it was all I could do to stop from placing my hands right around that bastard’s throat and…I ran, just ran right out of that room.”
Jim T. put his hand on the man’s shoulder. It was an odd sensation, it was as if for a second with that light touch the two were one. The younger man was staring into his glass now, his head bent over. “Goddammit, Jim! What am I going to do now?” His red eyes were pleading now as he turned to the older man. “She’s not coming back, Jim, is she?”
At that moment that there was a sound in the hallway, someone calling his – their – name. Jim T. opened the door and saw Violet standing there, holding a bouquet of wild flowers, staring at him with such love as he had never seen.
“I got these for you, since you never got my flowers,” she said. Then she wrapped her arms around him.
Jim’s whole body started to tremble. It was as if something inside him, this cold stone he’d been carrying around in his chest for so long, was shattering into a million pieces. He held her tighter, tight as he could, sobbing, holding on to her for strength. The door had opened a crack, letting in a bright ribbon of light. And he was thinking that she was here, that she was real, that maybe things always didn’t have to end suddenly, maybe maybe maybe. He kissed her lightly on the lips and held her tightly for another moment.
Then, gently, he pushed her away, smiling at her, and with the back of his hand, wiped the tears out of his eyes.
He turned and walked back into the room where young Jim sat, bent over, on the edge of the bed, still staring into his glass. He took the glass out of Jim L.’s hand, and, with Violet in the hallway behind him, giving him this newfound strength, took the man’s hand and said, “Jim, come on, get up, it’s time to stand up again now.” And the younger man looked up at him for a moment with his glazed, hurt expression, like a boy looking up at his older brother. Then, with the older man’s help, he made the effort -- he got to his feet.