All my life perfect strangers have come up and confessed to me. They say I remind them of their sisters, their daughters, their first sweethearts, and it’s perfectly true that most of these people have been men and they always confused me by their honesty so that I listened, like a girl who believes, to every one of them. I never knew what was expected of me. Maybe nothing was—but really, something is always expected, and by the very nature of their giving me something so freely and anonymously, they must have desired something back.
I hope that, even if by accident, they got it from me. Some of them at least. I know it couldn’t be possible for all.
When I say that people confess to me, I mean they tell me things like an unburdening. An example? I went to the laundry the other day and while I stood there, loading wash, a man asked, “Did you do your taxes yet?”
He was an older man, tired and heavy with all those years of gravity. His eyes locked on me immediately. I pushed the coin slot into the washer. “I haven’t, no.”
He shook his head wearily. “Sarah does it for me, over on Washington St. A lovely person.” He blinked.”She’s been doing it for us for 20 years.” His eyes floated away.”I still say ‘us.’ My wife died two years ago.”
His head bowed down even lower, and I sat next to him on the laundry bench as the windows spun their clothes around us, tumbling like his words, getting drier and older by the minute, and he told me all he could about Laura,
That’s what it’s like so often. Someone—gently, conversationally, as if there were no start to it—talks. Just like rain, it starts, and their sorrows mist down: I am poor, I am sick, I am lonely, I am sore.
At the grocer’s, just the other night, as I lined up with my purchases, the cashier said, “That milk’s no good for you.” She held it up in front of her, cradling it.”It’s irradiated. They say it can cause cancer.” Her lip trembled.”I have cancer. I found out today.” “Today! You shouldn’t be working!”
“No, it’s all right, really. What else would I do? Go home? I live with my mom, she’s a nervous woman. She’ll be watching me constantly. I hate that. Last year I lost a baby—I wasn’t very far along—but I think it nearly killed her.” “Lost a baby! And now cancer! It’s too much, too much!”
That lifted her head a little bit. “It is, isn’t it? I tell myself things like this happen all the time, but I don’t know anyone else so many things have happened to. My girlfriend says it’s enough to crush a person.” “It would bring most people to their knees.”
And it would. It’s amazing how misfortune sometimes chooses one special person, so the burdens pile on top of burdens, until a last small scrap brings it all crashing to a halt. I met one woman who lost an eye to a rare tropical disease, though she’d been out of the country only once. She married twice, both husbands died (one to suicide) and was about to retire on a company pension when the company went bankrupt and disappeared. It was this that broke her.
It’s certainly true that money and emotions are intertwined. I guess it does make sense, because money in its own way creates relationships. My boss, for instance, has had more influence on my life than anyone I’ve known. My boss is in love with me. He tells me this constantly.
His story is a familiar one, and he repeats it often. “My wife?” he says dismissively.”She’ll burn in hell. Why not? It’ll be her turn— she’s made my life hell.”
He hangs his head in a caricature of despondence. His emotions are hard to ignore, they’re blatant. They’re too big for him to carry well, he uses them as weapons.
He looks at me from under the lids, as if he’s hiding behind his eyes and occasionally needs to check on me.
He’s a tall, stocky man with big ears whose body is constantly moving. He bobs his head, shrugs his shoulders, flings his arms out.
About a month after I started working in the traffic department of an import company (I fill out the invoices and transport assignments from the port to the store), I noticed my boss was gloomy. His head sunk low, he was silent, his shoulders were frozen. Because he looked unhappy, I did small things for him—got him coffee, picked up his mail. Nothing big, but he noticed it.
There’s one other person in the department, an older woman named Doris, who works surrounded by ringing phones and retirement plans. I took the job only because they said I could start immediately. I figured I would do it until something better showed up, but it turned out they expect me to replace Doris. They did me a favor, really, by hiring me. And if Doris retires and then I quit—well, that wouldn’t be fair. Of course I never promised them anything. But then, taking the job was a sort of promise, wasn’t it?
That night, as I left, Eddie caught up with me at the elevator. He just appeared there, all of a sudden. As we waited, he hung his head and asked, “Did you ever have a day where you felt like giving up?” I protested. “Oh no! Don’t ever give up!”
“And why not? Go home to a house where they hate me? What’s the point of that?”
I hesitated. I try to be quiet and unobtrusive at work. Sometimes, when people confide too much, they regret it. They don’t want to be reminded of their weaknesses afterward; I understand that. So I blinked and tried to look comforting yet not inviting, but there are people whose sorrows spill out and spill over; they force you to step in.
“You wouldn’t have time for a drink,” he said as we got in the elevator.”For a quick drink? Just one I swear and you can be off.” He gave me a humble smile and I said, Just one, because I thought we could be friends. You should never refuse to be a friend, never. It’s my belief that people are cruel because they’re unhappy, and they’re unhappy because they’ve been treated unkindly and that’s where the cycle must be broken: by those who can be kind. That’s all I intended—to be kind.
We went to a bar right around the block, and he got us a table in a corner, ordered drinks and said, “All these years and I never knew what that woman was.” His eyes almost rolled back in his head.”She’s been having an affair with my neighbor. All these years. Twenty years. She threw it in my face. She laughed at me.” “Oh my God.”
He shook his head. “Two children. Ha. Are they mine? Whose are they? How can I look them in the eye? All these years I loved them like they were my own.” He gulped his whiskey and soda.
“I’m sure you love them,” I said hastily. “And I’m sure they love you. And they could be your own, couldn’t they?”
“Working all my life for them. Just like that, what a waste. Do you know what that’s like? Your whole life wasted? No, you don’t, you’re too young, you’re still a kid, you can’t know what it’s like. It’s all ahead of you.”
He lifted his glass, nodded, and drank. He had an oddly delicate habit of sticking his pinkie out. Someone, his mother perhaps, had told him it was the right thing to do, and he was still doing it so many years later. He had thick hands.
He ordered a second round, saying, “I’ve missed my bus. The next one’s not for an hour. Keep me company, will you? No one should drink alone, the way I feel.”
He swore it would be the last, and when he tried to order a third drink, I said I had to go. I put money out for my share; he said that insulted him, so I took it back.
I live 20 minutes from work, and he insisted on walking me home. I thought the air might do him some good. He had missed the second bus and I thought the walk would keep him occupied until the third bus. On the way he told me that his neighbor Walter always had a smirk on his face and now he knew why.”I named my youngest after him,” he said in anguish.”I loved him like a brother!”
I did my best to soothe him, I said anything that popped into my head. They loved him, I said—certainly his children did—and they were waiting for him and needed him.
At my building he thanked me almost formally: “You’ve saved my life. Nobody else has ever listened to me like this. She never did. Not like this. Now I have to get on that bus and go home—to what?” He shook his head, peering at me from his heavy lids. He left, still shaking his head.
I felt sympathy for him, but I’m not a fool, I know whoever tells a story has a way of selecting details. We had other drinks, other days, days when he looked glum or when he stood in the doorway, rattling his fat fingers on his heart to indicate misery. He quickly developed a kind of shorthand for his demands: a flick of the hand with pinkie extended meant a drink, rubbing his belly meant a meal, tapping his heart meant hours of talk. I grew to dread it. Within two weeks of our first conversation he had taken over my life.
I knew by then that he had a history, too: an affair with a secretary in another office. She had walked out on him—tortured him, he claimed; she had left town without a word. His head pumped up and down in misery.
“You’ve screwed around,” I said one night, tired of listening to the same accusations, the same complaints.”You’re not lily-white. Why can’t you forgive her? Work it out?” “Forget her,” he said. “You know how I feel about you.”
I was torn between my wish to be sympathetic and my growing unease. The more he told me he loved me, the more I wanted to get away from him. Sometimes that took 15 minutes of refusals and pleadings. I tried to sneak out of work without his seeing me, but he watched me. And as soon as I got home, the phone calls began. Just as I turned the stove on, put water on to boil, sliced onions or tomatoes, the phone would ring. “I need to talk to you.” “No.” “Why not?” “No.” “I won’t take long.” “No.”
“What are you doing that we can’t have dinner? What’s so important that you hurt me like this? You’re killing me. What’ll it cost you—an hour? Two hours?” “I just need some time alone.” “I’ll kill myself.” “Don’t say that. It’s not fair.” “You’re my life.” “I don’t love you. I told you that.” “You will, you will. I’ll go to my grave thinking that.” “That’s right, you will.”
These conversations, these phone calls, became routine. From once a week to five times a week; from once a night to 10, 20 times.
I dreaded those calls. I didn’t go home right away. I went for long walks, I went to movies.
One night, a man in line behind me said, “Excuse me, do you know what this film is about?” He had nervous eyes, nervous gestures. “It’s an adventure movie. Lots of action. I don’t think it’s violent.”
“Thanks. I couldn’t take violence.” He jiggled his hands in his pockets and gave a snort of a laugh.”Not now. My wife has a complaint against me. Says I hit her.” His face went dark and sour. “And did you?”
“Self-defense. She pushed me to the limit, to the very limits of my soul.” His eyes pooled up.”I’d give anything to change it. I don’t see myself as a hitter. Not me. That’s my dad. I’ll never be my dad.”
The line moved forward. “That’s so hard,” I said. “I think they call it learned behavior. You learned it even when you hated it.”
“Yeah,” he said, jiggling some more. “The worst thing is, I hit my kid.” I was silent.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he whispered. “I didn’t hit him hard. Not one of those freaks you see on TV.I didn’t hit him hard.”
“Don’t ever do it again,” I said, and I think my voice shook. It was just at that moment that I saw Eddie walk down the street, coming towards me. I cut and run.
I know my neighborhood; I knew where to duck and how to make the shortcuts. But I got farther from home, choosing the worst path, always, just to get rid of Eddie. I stopped, finally, panting, in a part of town I’d never seen before. I looked around—overturned garbage cans, broken lights, no one in sight.
I walked in the street, which is what you’re supposed to do in a bad neighborhood. Because it’s harder to be dragged away without being seen, because someone in a car might come by and actually help.
This time, however, a car came slowly down the street, passed by me gently, and stopped. A man got out—young, grinning, calling, “Honey, sweetie-pie, you all alone here? You lost, honey?” He was big but he moved with a spring in his step, a jauntiness like good humor. He left his car running and came towards me.”You okay, there?” he sang out, coming towards me, and I had two impulses— one to run and one to stay. I didn’t want to misjudge him, he might help me out.
But when he got to me his hand waved in front of my face—a little dancing prancing wave to show me the knife.
“Now sweetie, honey, just give me everything you’ve got. Money— no jewelry, huh? Cards, then. This it?” He frowned then, and I got a sick feeling in my legs as if they were about to buckle.
“What can I do with this kind of money?” he muttered, holding my wallet in his hands. He had already gone through my purse, dropping it in disgust in the street.
“Now don’t start crying on me—I ain’t done a thing to hurt you. It’s just money I need, just like everybody else. You think I like to do this, huh? I don’t. I got pressures. I’ve got a life that ain’t going right. I could tell you right.now how many people are robbing me— doctors, landlords, tax people, you name it—but it’s not gonna make me richer to tell you, is it?” He looked at me a moment, thoughtfully. “Your pockets. Empty out your pockets.” His eyes got faraway and frightening and his knife jiggered fretfully. His voice dropped to a whisper.”No, forget the pockets. We’re going for a ride. In my car, girlie, come on with me.”
Every instinct in me said the safest thing to do was please him, but my knees bent and I fell down to the pavement. He dropped beside me.”Here? You wanna do it here?” His knife wavered over me—my neck, my breasts, my thighs, as if he were looking for the right place to start.
Just then a car turned the corner and we both looked up, blinded and frozen, as it slowed down and stopped. I no longer had any thoughts. The headlights made everything around us enormous. A car door opened and a man asked, “What’s going on out there?”
At once my attacker turned and ran. I sat up as I heard the squeal of his tires.
“Are you all right?” Footsteps tapped slowly down the pavement.
I knew I should run but I couldn’t stop shaking. I thought this one, too, would have a knife, but he didn’t. He was a lad who’d just gotten off from work. He drove me home, all the time twisting his head to look at me, and opening his mouth to say something, but he never actually did. He was a nice boy, a little young and skinny to be a hero, or maybe all heroes are young and skinny, and it’s just the stories that supply the flesh. I had the feeling I was going to be his story.
I could hear my phone ringing while I was still in the hallway. It stopped by the time I made it in and stayed silent for 15 minutes but then it rang again, at least a dozen times. It stopped; it rang again. That went on until I took the phone off the hook.
The next day at work Eddie wouldn’t even look up when I came in. His anger rose off him like steam. I had a bruise on my face; I couldn’t even remember how I’d gotten it. The night before seemed unreal; it couldn’t possibly have happened. I couldn’t bear to think of it, that was all. Fear was like a blanket—it smothered everything else, smoothing out the things I thought about. I didn’t really directly think about that man and his knife, but he was there, in the background, everywhere. He was twisting that knife and whispering to me, whispering.
Eddie’s silence—he managed to keep his back to me the whole day—was a relief. I felt myself drifting off occasionally—sinking down in the glare of the lights—and I had to snap back again; bite my finger, pinch my nose, anything like that.
But as it got time to leave I felt Eddie’s eyes on me. He glared relentlessly; I sat with my head down, aware of it but holding out. It seemed a test of some kind, trying to keep away from his eyes.
“Where’d you get that bruise?” he asked finally when I looked at him. His voice was a mixture of outrage and self-pity.
“I don’t know, I didn’t even notice. I must have bumped into something.”
His whole upper body moved with the emphasis of his nod. His voice twanged with injury.”Who is he? Who’d you meet?” “I didn’t meet anyone.”
“I saw you. The guy you talked to in the line.” He knew I was holding out on him; he had gained a moral ground. He was almost gloating. “You saw me at the movies?” “I saw you.”
There was something about the triumphant way he said this that pulled me up short.”You just happened to go to the movies?” “I followed you.”
At once it seemed obvious—how the phone started ringing just minutes after I got home, how lately he had suddenly stopped making scenes when I insisted on going home. He was following me. He was watching me.
And what a simple life he had watched, too. Out the door, five blocks and turn right, two blocks and stop at the store owned by the man whose mother had gone to the laundromat one day and simply not come back. Two corners and a magazine, perhaps, or a newspaper. A chat with the newspaperman, whose son had dropped out of school and was possibly on drugs.
Eddie was watching me. His face was ugly; I had always thought before how sad it was to be so unattractive, but now it occurred to me that his face might, indeed, reflect his soul. It was a mean thought. For a moment I hated him. “You ran off to meet someone,” he said.
“No. I didn’t.” I almost said, I ran because I saw you, but I was ashamed. He was unhappy, horribly unhappy. That’s why he behaved so badly. I knew that he brought it all on himself, but the pain was still real. How would it help if I insulted him? Still, I couldn’t give in. “I don’t want you following me,” I said finally. But then I wavered. I thought how much I hated going home, the night ahead of me shaped only by memories of a man with a knife.
He saw me; he was alert to me. “Let’s talk about it over dinner,” he said.
And because I was a coward, I said, “Yes, but this time will be the last time. You have to understand that.”
Of course, he agreed. And, in the course of his whiskey-and-sodas, he grew more expansive, more confident, more insistent.”Drop the jerk,” he said, pointing at my bruise.”Or tell me who he is. I’ll take care of it.”
“I told you, it was an accident. And it’s not important. What is important is to remember I’m your friend. I’ll never be your lover. The phone calls have to stop, and following me home has to stop. You make people hate you when you do that.”
He was crestfallen. “I won’t do it,” he promised. “But you drive me crazy. I sit next to you all day long, don’t I? And I behave like a gentleman. And you have no idea how I feel.”
“No I don’t.” I seized the opportunity. “Because I don’t feel the way you do.”
He glowered. “You want to hurt me? Go ahead then, hit me right here.” He pounded his heart.”It would be easier to take.”
But I got him to stop at two drinks and he let me end it without too much trouble after the bill was paid. I walked him to the bus station; I waited for the bus; I watched him get on it.
When I got home, the phone wasn’t ringing; it didn’t ring all night. I thought, it isn’t so very hard to set things right.
But I was wrong. The next night he wanted dinner again and I said no. I took a different way home; I stopped in different stores, but I knew he was there even when I didn’t see him. The hairs at the back of my neck were prickling. The phone rang the moment I opened my door. “I said don’t call me,” I hissed. “Please,” he said, “I’m going to leave my wife for you.” “Don’t do it,” I cried. “I’ll quit my job, I’ll leave town.”
“No, no. I’m sorry. Don’t quit. Just talk to me, meet me for a drink.” “I’m unplugging the phone,” I said. And I did.
Ten minutes later the bell started ringing. I thought it would drive me mad, the way he wouldn’t stop. I could picture him, down there, jabbing at the button, outraged, jabbing again.
No matter what, I wasn’t going to give in. Why couldn’t he take no for an answer? Why couldn’t he behave reasonably? Why did he push so hard—forcing me to hate him—me, who hated no one, on principle?
The bell stopped finally. I heard shouting in the hallway. I covered my ears again; I wanted peace, peace, peace.
I crept out later to the store for bread and eggs—and I looked back over my shoulder the whole time, I checked the streets constantly. The super was putting out the garbage when I got back. He beckoned to me. “You’ve got a problem,” he said. “About 45 or so, pudgy, funny looking, ugly son of a bitch.” “My boss.”
“Kept ringing and ringing your bell. You know how it is. The first floor hears the bells. The apartments around you hear the bells. We all hear the bells. I had to tell him I called the cops. He doesn’t give up easily.” “No. He doesn’t.”
“The thing is,” he said, looking at me closely, “there’s three complaints against you now.” “Against me? Why me? I didn’t ring the bell.”
“You’re the attraction.” He looked uncomfortable. “I don’t want to see you get thrown out.” I panicked. “No, no. I’ll take care of it. I promise.”
He sighed in relief. “That’s good. I can’t take any more problems, not now. My son’s wife ran off with their money, just went to the bank and took it all out. The kid is crushed, he’s like a baby, he doesn’t know what to do. Trouble like this, I have to be careful, I have to keep this job. I’m not alone.” His face got deeper lines on it just standing there thinking of his troubles.
“It’s all right,” I said, trying to stop the flow of worries. “None of this is your problem. I’m sorry if you were bothered. I’ll take care of it.”
My stomach was in a knot. I fried some eggs, buttered some toast, and threw it all away.
I got a screwdriver and disconnected my bell. I put the phone in the closet. I went to bed and stared at the ceiling. Where had I gone wrong? I believed, I truly believed, that I had a gift for listening—and yet it had gone wrong, terribly wrong. I had encouraged Eddie’s obsessions, I might even be evicted because of it. How had such good intentions gone so far astray?
The next day I found copies of my work on my desk with angry red circles around typos and mistakes of all kinds. I leafed through them slowly, my neck getting hot, my heart speeding. We did so much work that perfection wasn’t the rule, efficiency was, I wasn’t a schoolchild; this wasn’t homework. I looked again: the orders had all been filled already. I threw them out.
While Eddie was out of the room I told Doris I didn’t feel well and was going home.
I had no plan, that was the problem. I needed to think of a plan. I didn’t want to hurt Eddie, I just wanted him to leave me alone. But what if he wasn’t capable of that?
I was so lost in thought that I took my usual route home, meeting the mailman whose house had burned down and a neighbor whose cat had died.
I opened the front door and turned to close it just as Eddie’s fat fingers wrapped themselves around the edge. I jumped back and he grinned.”I have to talk to you,” he said.
I started backing up the stairs. “No. I don’t want to talk to you right now.”
“Just talking. What’s the problem?” He came up the stairs slowly, grinning in a foolishly triumphant way.
“I want you to go away. Now.” I hated the way he kept walking up the stairs, each step a little mountain he crested. When I got to the top of the flight I knew I couldn’t stand it anymore, I had lost the use of all reasonable words, and I pushed him away—not even forcefully, it was an indecisive push. But it was enough, it took him by surprise, and those fat hands of his flew up, looking for support, and found nothing. His eyes, still on me, registered irritation, only, at another interruption in his plans, and then he tipped over backwards, like a jar off a shelf.
All my life I’ve tried to do the right thing and only the right thing. It isn’t just that I was willing to listen to them all; I wanted to. I wanted them to throw a little of their sorrowing away, that’s all, these people staggering under their worries and guilts. I wanted to be the little blessed secret in their life, touching them, leaving them better off.
I ran down the stairs and checked him; his eyes were closed and his chest was still. I called for help from the phone around the corner, but I doubted it would still matter.
It’s so simple, how the world changes irrevocably. There was no way I could go back—five minutes ago, an hour ago—to the time when I was innocent and free. People are most obsessed when they surprise themselves. Unexpected heroism, unexpected cowardice— these things that seem to leap out from someone else’s history and land in yours—well, you’re never released from it.
Because what could be so remarkable as this—with the best of intentions, without thinking at all about it—change from what I was to what I am, a murderer?
I walked to the police station, waited for the desk sergeant to notice me and said, “I killed someone.” He lost his bored expression for only a moment, then sent me upstairs to a large room with cracked gray linoleum on the floor and four old metal desks. A man waved me over to his desk and I sat down on a folding chair. “I murdered someone.” Det. Clark gave me a tired smile.
“He was my boss. He followed me constantly, tracking me down. I told him to stop, but he was an unhappy man.” “A stalker,” Det. Clark murmured.
“I disconnected my bell and the phone. To stop him from bothering me.” “You must have been frightened.” “I wasn’t frightened until I saw the knife.” “He had a knife? It was self-defense?”
I had to concentrate harder. “I didn’t mean that, no.” I was ruining my case.”He didn’t have a knife, that was someone else.”
“Take it easy,” Det. Clark said. “Take your time. No one’s gonna hurt you. Now, how’d he die? He is dead, right?”
It was impossible, but the detective had a sympathetic glint in his eye. He looked at me kindly, he was steering me gently away from my own statements.”He might have stepped back on his own, you know. Like he forgot where he was.” “I know I pushed him.” “Don’t worry, we’ll straighten this out.”
He made a call, his head turned from me, then turned back and smiled.”You’ve never been in trouble before, have you? No, I didn’t think so. The man stalked you. Probably wanted to get you into bed. That’s right, isn’t it?” He shook his head sadly.”When I was growing up, I had a friend who was stalked. Like you, a nice girl, easy to talk to. A daddy fell in love with her.” He snorted.”That’s how young we were, that’s how she said it. She disappeared, 14 years old. You look like her, the same kind of eyes, the way you listen. You’re just like Annie. She always looked like she was taking in every word. You have that look. Sympathetic. You have a gift for making a person feel listened to. I think I would have married her, you know. I have a wife and lads, but just sometimes you think of different things and I always think of her.”
His voice was drifting over me. I would have told him, Stop, please stop and listen to me, but he already had the gaze they get when they confess to me—densely abstracted, cushioned in memories. I heard all about Annie as he filled out the forms, interrupting himself every once in a while to check a fact. “You said he threatened to kill himself?” “I don’t think he meant it.”
“Annie always thought the best of people, too. There was a woman next door that everyone hated, I hated too, I did a terrible thing to her once and only Annie knew. . . .” And his voice went off, recollecting Annie and his own lost days.
I didn’t want to listen to him. I hated listening to him. But my lips must have smiled and maybe my eyes softened automatically, the way he said Annie’s had. Because he kept on talking.
In fact they all keep talking, even now, when I have my own story, a story just as sad as theirs. But still they keep on talking, as if I couldn’t possibly have sorrows of my own.
As if it isn’t, somehow, unbearable to be told it was all an accident when I know it wasn’t, to be told I’m innocent when the guilt rises up in my throat, to be treated as if I were exactly the same as before. As soon as they see me, they throw their words at me like hail, and it doesn’t matter how I feel. It doesn’t matter that I need forgiveness too. I need relief, because all they care about, beating their breasts and wiping their eyes, is the personal, quite comfortable, recital of their sins.
Well, damn their sins. And damn their sorrows. Damn them all.