In the bald hours between tapiocas—no hard foods since my stroke, no chunks—I think of Pop, laid up with MS much of his life. How proud he was. How uncomplaining. At the end he slept with his boots on, laced, so as not to ask for help with them again.
I wanted more than to spend my able-bodied years in probate law, yakking in the bar car. I remember one case where a canned-soup heiress had her fortune rehauled from her children to a Pomeranian—I did it for her—and I think I called Frank the next day about a job.
Frank was an old friend of mine. OSS, America’s own knight. Good-looking, too. He had fought with the Maquis in the Resistance, and ridden tanks through Paris spraying jeroboams of brut champagne onto merry, whooping crowds, blowing kisses to the women, catching bras and roses. I had my memories of the war, but unlike Frank I’d been nearsighted, shy and bulbous, with a large overbite, 4-F, from Scranton, and a hesitant lover, and my despair at the death and destruction around me went unleavened by exhilaration or delight in Frank’s own leading-man charisma. I had talked my way into a post shuttling bodies from the front lines back to allied soil with a graves registration unit—no bras. Maybe, coming home, I felt like I’d missed out on something, and later went looking for it in the wrong sorts of places. Too far away, too late. In the century, in life. That’s what Phyllis, my ex-wife, said anyway. But she was always, you know, saying things. An amateur psychologist, Phyllis. Always busting my chops.
The phone rings. The nurse comes from the kitchen in her fuchsia scrubs, hugging a pumpkin.
“Hello?” she says into the phone. “Hello? . . . Hey—hey listen, bucko.” She makes a face, then replaces the receiver. “They hung up again, the buttheads.”
“No plem?” I say, and she understands, as always.
“Oh, just some turds, I’ll bet, pulling pranks for Halloween. They’ll get bored soon and stop.” We’ve had a spell of crank calls since I got back from the hospital. “Unless it’s personal. Then they might not. Stop. Like, ever. You seen that show, Slasher in My Yard? You got yourself some enemies, hon? Old teddy bear like yourself?”
She’s enormous, the nurse—nearly three hundred pounds—and majestically alive, and I think I might love her.
“Plonk,” I say. “Good harm.”
“You got that right.”
“That’s true, baby. Just some squirts from down the street.” She sets the pumpkin on the mantel. “Some pizza-faced kid hates his own guts, has to take it out on the rest of us.”
I live in a place called Portofino Palms, a nice gated suburb on a man-made hill in Scottsdale. Sneakered mall rats, terra-cotta roofs. It’s no Berlin, or even Denver, but who cares? It’s clean.
Because of my burns, I like to keep a low profile. (Literally, I sometimes joke, since much of my left nasal cartilage was melted in the accident, years back, and tends to droop.) There are plenty other private types: a disgraced Exxon executive—here he comes now scooting past my house, yielding for an armadillo—a turncoat from the Jersey mob, with new veneers. I’m former CIA. Here in Portofino Palms the living’s easy, and the big sun blights the shadows of the omertà. Nobody bothers me. But lately—