With just over three minutes left to the game, Patriots were preparing to finish off the Giants, our doorbell rings. Our doorbell is pretty lame, it rings just loud enough for Sam and I turn to one another and ask if the doorbell rang. In reality, we should just turn to Dante who enters a barking fit at the mere thought of the doorbell ineffectual whisper. Sam goes to silence Dante and I go to answer the door.
He is taller than me. A head full of thinning gray hair which matches the stubble on his cheeks. He is wearing blue jeans and a worn t-shirt, and it is fucking freezing out.
“Hey, what’s up?” I ask.
“Hey Tony.” I go to shake his hand. His hand is warm and it is fucking freezing out. I stood in the doorway debating if the cold was pouring in or the heat was rushing out.
“Gotta keep that heat in! Gotta keep it in!” He said. I slowly closed the door, knowing I was sealing myself outside with this man. I fold my arms to hold some of my heat my green hoodie and t-shirt aren’t very effective.
“You know what happened to me man? I let the wife raise the heat two clicks, JUST two clicks. Do you know what my electric bill was this month?” He asked while he held up two fingers longer than necessary.
“FOUR HUNDRED AND ELEVEN DOLLARS. So I’m telling you Tom. Just one click. Anymore than that and you are going to be paying through your fucking teeth! Just one click okay? What are you doing? Are you busy?” He asks.
“Not really.” I am thinking about my thermostats and how many clicks they are on. I am also thinking about the fact it is fucking freezing out. I need to get back inside the apartment. “Watching the game. The Super Bowl.”
“Oh yeah? Is your wife home?”
“Yup. Watching the game with her. Are you watching it?”
“Nah. Hey. I was wondering. I don’t know what sort of things you want or need. But I was wondering if you guys needed a planter?”
“Yeah. It’s nice. Stainless steel planter. You know, for your patio. For your plants.”
“It’s all right. We are good.”
“I was going to throw it out. But I thought I would ask you. You know, to see if you wanted it.”
“Well, if you were going to throw it out, I guess I could take a look at it.” I open my door and get a jacket hanging inside and when I turn around he is no longer there. He is walking away from me.
Now, I have come to realize he is absolutely drunk. He picks up something next to the dumpster and starts to walk back. As he comes off the curb, he starts to list to one side and uses his vertical stainless steel patio planter to steady himself.
To give this exchange another layer, Sam and I were having a discussion earlier that day about how we intended to keep Dante secured on our porch when the weather got better. Sam had the idea of using planters secured to the bottom of the patio railing to keep Dante confined. How Tony was able to rise to that challenge ten hours later without us telling him our idea can only be the subject of speculation.
My money is on...spy.
I take the planter from him and thank him graciously as I start to layout the pleasantries to get to the point where I can say goodnight in order to get back inside.
“In the summer and the spring, the people before. The Spanish people. The Spanish folk that lived here before they moved out. They were all into planting stuff. What do you call it? Green thumbs? In the summer and spring you are gonna get some great stuff in here. They grew. Umm. Not beefsteak. But umm. Ugly Tomatoes! Those suckers are good, right? And they grew right here. All they need is water.”
It barely took any energy to feign interest in this for him to believe it.
“I’m telling you Tom. You keep this watered and you will get tomatoes all season. Hey, I’ve got beers. Do you want a beer?” His hands were empty. I thought this might have been my chance. His desire to drink more might be stronger than his desire to stand out here in the cold and talk to me.
“Aww, I’m sorry but, I don’t drink beer.” Which is true, for the most part.
“Bullshit, have a beer. He is starting to walk away and I get the impression he is going to go upstairs to get his beer. I do not want to drink beer. I certainly do not want to wait outside for him to go get me a beer I did not want in the first place.
“No man. It’s okay. Don’t trouble yourself. I am good. I have work in the morning.”
“It’s no trouble I keep them right over here.” He is walking beyond the stairs over to an old antique baby stroller. At one time it was probably very handsome and functional but now its brass and chrome are rusted and corroded and supporting a bassinet that has been completely blackened by mold.
“You see this? You know how old it is? He asked as he wheeled it away from the corner.
“It looks pretty old.”
“It’s from the 1920’s. It’s nearly a 100 years old.”
“And you keep it out here?” I asked.
“Yes, I keep the beer inside here. In here.” He was not talking about the stroller anymore. Which is probably better that he misunderstood me.
“Here. Have a beer. Anyone who doesn’t drink beer is no friend of mine.”
Hello, my name is Thomas, I am 32 years old and I am failing to resist peer pressure from an alcoholic I barely know. He reached into the stroller and into a small black plastic shopping bag. He pulled out a small six ounce bottle of Miller light. He twisted off the cap, threw it in the stroller and thrust the beer into my hand.
And in moments, we were toasting to something like the importance of unwashed hands and mold infested strollers as illness vectors. Or not.
Sam is opening the door. She has her jacket on and Dante is squeezing himself through the crack in the front door to sniff Tony. Sam sees the beer in my hand, looks at me and smiles. She is judging me. Not because she does not approve of me drinking but because she knows I hate beer. Especially “traditional” beer. A lot.
“You missed it.”
“The game?” I asked knowing the answer.
“Yeah. The one team was trying not to get a touchdown but he messed up and got a touchdown anyway. But the other team did not have enough time to get a touchdown. They threw a Hail Mary pass but he missed. New York won.” She said anticlimactically. I looked inside to see a slow motion shot of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sitting on the field looking dumbfounded.
I was confused but at least I could gather that the Giants won and that watching the last forty-five minutes of football did not turn me into a football fan. Certainly, not enough to care that Tony prevented me from seeing what was probably a very interesting final three minutes of the game.
Though, I wish I could have spent it with my wife instead of Tony. Sam closed the door behind her as Dante lost interest in sniffing Tony and walks past him.
“Hey Sam, how are you? Do you want a beer?”
“I’m good. No, we don’t really like beer. But thank you for offering.”
“Sam, Samantha. Am I right?”
“Nope.” She said as she kept walking with a smile on her face. I smiled.
“Hey Poochie.” Tony bent over in an attempt to pet Dante as he walked away and he nearly fell forward. He caught himself and stood up. He sipped his beer and we both pretended that we did not see that happen.
A few moments pass, and he aims a thumb over his shoulder and asks.
“Hey, what does she do for a living?”
“Sam is a preschool teacher. I am a nurse.”
“She’s a nurse?”
“No. I am a nurse.” I gesture to myself, reminiscent of my conversation with his wife Bonnie.
“Sam is nice. You been married long?”
“That’s nice. Congratulations. I’ve been married this time for nearly 15 years. To Bonnie.“
“Congratulations. That’s great!” I said
“Yeah, I am leaving her.”
“What? You are? I’m sorry.” I said becoming increasingly confused.
“Hey, don’t be sorry. It just happens. She’s a bitch.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I said as he shrugged his shoulders in response.
“Yeah. Well, what are ya gonna do? Right? You know, that car over there.” That’s ours. Well, it’s Bonnie’s. It doesn’t run. It does run, but, it needs a lot work. A new transmission. Electrical work. New tires. The engine has over a few hundred thousand miles on it. I remember when she first got it I took a tack hammer and tapped on the side paneling and all this body filler fell out of it. I think it's more body filler than metal.” He laughed. Which cued me to laugh because that was funny. I think. “I tried to tell her to just sell it for parts because at this point, with all the repairs it needs it is worth more in parts than it would be, you know, if you sold the car.”
“Right.” I sipped the six-ounce Miller Light. Because I think that is what my character is supposed to do here.
“Because that’s what I do, Tom. I sell things. For a living. But I am on disability.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I make good money.”
“Why wouldn’t I believe you?” I quickly retrace what I said to him recently to make him think I did not believe him. He starts to reach into his back pocket and pulls out a wallet. There is a moment I hope it’s a gun instead. A thick old man wallet.
Cracked brown leather swollen with business cards, receipts, cash, plastic. It is the wallet of a different generation. Along the spine of it are probably upwards of one thousand dollars in large bills. He holds the wallet in front of us for a moment, presumably so I can take it in. Then he thumbs the corner of bills and fans through them to insure that I saw more than the top bill.
I don’t care. I think about how my chiropractor and how sitting on that wallet must really effect his posture. I wished he would put away his wallet-penis. It was making me uncomfortable because at any moment he might be able to look at my face and realize what I was thinking. That if I collected all my diner receipts for few months, emptied my bank account, and actually kept every buy ten get one free punch card I’d ever gotten an shoved them in a wallet that I ran over with my car a few times we both could be comparing wallet-penises together, on my front stoop.
The wallet closes limply and he starts to put it back in his pants.
“I have a warehouse full of diapers right now.”
“Excuse me?” As I choke back a sip of beer.
“I buy lots of things. And I sell them.”
“You buy things in lots? Like off eBay?”
“Yeah, I buy stuff in lots. I sell on eBay. I don’t do a whole lot of buying off eBay. I get mostly stuff at auction. Police auctions and storage auctions. Like that TV show.”
“Yeah. That’s me.”
“Yeah. That’s how I get stuff like that planter.” I look down at the planter like it was a diaper in his warehouse. Its' metal is so cold now that when I touch the handle it feels like it burns for a moment as it steals the heat of my fingertips.
“So if you need anything else just ask me. I might have it. And I’ll just give it to you, you know?”
“Yeah.” I wish he could take his fiery planter back. I did not want it anymore.
“That’s how I got all this cash right now. I sell cars too.”
“That’s how Bonnie got her car.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a soft pack of Marlboro reds. “You want a smoke?”
“No thanks. I don’t smoke. It’s the nurse in me.”
“Oh, you’re nursing?”
Somewhere a train begins to derail and the conductor snaps awake and attempts to regain control of the teetering train. “No. It’s the nurse in me and plus Sam is allergic to the smoke.”
“Hey, I would like to be nursing her.” The train falls from the track and steers towards the earth for a moment before it suddenly goes airborne and shoots off into the stratosphere of misplaced conversation.
“What?” I asked slowly moving into a more aggressive stance.
“You are lucky to have her for a nurse.” He said with a laugh as smoke crawled out of his mouth.
“I am the nurse. I work at Monmouth Medical. She is a preschool teacher.” I said coldly.
“Oh! You're a nurse?”
“Yes. I work in the operating room at Monmouth Medical.”
“I’ve been to Monmouth Medical Center before.”
“Yeah. I have brain cancer. I went there because of my brain tumor.” He pointed to his frontal lobe. Maybe not midline but off to his right side. ”I had blood clots. In my brain.”
“Wow. Crazy. But you recovered obviously. That’s good.” I stare at his face then look at his hands to see if he has any deficits. I fail to see anything.
He takes a long drag while I take a sip of my beer. “The tumor is back, Tom.” He says and without much foreplay it feels as though he is having a moment with me. I wonder who this guy Tom is because he and Tony must have been friends for a long while that he feels so willing to admit his prognosis. We must be close.
I must resist. But he pushes onward.
“I am a dead man, Tom.”
I folded. The nurse in me started to gush. “Oh come on Tony. This can not possibly be the end. Have you talked to the doctor who took care of you the first time? A surgeon? An oncologist? Uhh. A cancer doctor?”
“No Tom. No chemo. Absolutely not. I’d die before I lose one hair on my head from the chemo.”
“Have you spoken to any doctors?”
“Of course. Tom. Of course. The tumor is back. It’s bad. I’m a dead man.”
There is a lull, he takes a long drag of his Marlboro Red which may or may not have anything to do with his diagnosis that may or may not exist.
I force another sip of the six ounce Miller Light and imagine him sitting in an office with one of the neurosurgeons who yell at me at work. They are sitting at a big mahogany desk covered with piles of images representing Tony’s most recent CAT scans and MRI’s. The doctor looks at him, afraid to utter the next few words. It’s a job that never gets any easier. The neurosurgeon looks up from the images looks at the poor bastard in front of him and begins to speak:
“Tom’s upstairs neighbor Tony?”
“Yes? That's me.” He asks already knowing what he is about to say to him, after all he has been diagnosed before. Brain tumor and blood clots right in his brain, but this time it was different.
“I have some bad news. You’ve got a tumor. Like before.” The neurosurgeon, knowing Tony would want to know where it is exactly, points at his forehead. “Right here.”
“In my brain?”
“Yes. A brain tumor and blood clots. I am sorry to be the one who has to tell you this but, you’re a dead man.”
“Did you meet all your neighbors yet?” He asks me ruining the scene I was imagining.
“I think so. I met the couple next door for a minute or two yesterday. I met Bonnie yesterday.”
“My wife Bonnie?”
“Yep. That would be the one.”
“Ugg. She is so fake. Plastic. She is like that car. Fake. I am leaving her man. I don’t care. I’ll take care of her still. I just redid that whole apartment upstairs for her. I'll pay for the apartment for her. You know, I’ve got money.”
“I know Tony.” Please keep your wallet in your pants.
“Hey, Tom, can I tell you something? Can I tell you something Tom?”
“Yeah. Sure.” No, please don’t.
“Are you Irish?”
“A little bit. I’m Irish, English, and Greek. I am a mutt.”
“So you are Irish? I’m Irish. Can I tell you something?”
“I guess.” My desire to hear it now has diminished considerably since the last time he asked. Why does my nationality have to be a qualifier for what he is about to tell me?
“I’m going to hell for saying this, you know? I’m going straight to hell but Tom...I gotta tell you this.”
Oh sweet Jesus. Do I stop this? Do I tell him to stop, that I wasn’t interested? But I am interested, I do want him to tell me something. I sip my beer to silence my conscience because there is a dark, sinister part of me who sincerely wants this man to go to hell. Especially if it’s because of what he is about to tell me.
“Every time I see a black man with a white girl in a brand new Nissan Ultima car all I can think is...he’s using her Tom. He’s using her.”
I did not even think before I started speaking “Well, if that is what you think...”
“That’s what I KNOW.” He interrupted me pointing at himself with his cigarette hand. The collision with his chest broke the cherry from the stump of his Marlboro Red. I know he is talking about our neighbors, Shane and Rachel.
“If that is what you feel, Tony. I don’t feel that way.” I sipped the beer he gave me.
“You want another one?” He asked changing the subject.
“No. I am still working on this one.” I held it up. It was more than half filled.
“Eh, if you don’t want it, don’t waste it. Don’t drink it.” There was a subtle anger in his voice; he was annoyed. Either I wasn’t drinking it fast enough or I wasn’t racist enough for him.
“I am drinking it.” The words stung me, here I was defending my consumption of the beverage I did not even want in the first place. Tony placed the empty bottle next to a large pot that dead plants similar to the dead plants that were supposed to be ugly tomatoes. I am angry at him silently. He goes back to the stroller to get another beer.
He felt safe to tell me he had racist thoughts about Shane and Rachel. He felt safe because somehow me being a percentage Irish made me part of some club where racists could speak freely one another.
The door upstairs opens. Bonnie is on the stoop looking down over the banister.
“What are you doing?” I think she mumbled.
“I’m outside having a beer with my buddy Tom.”
She is looking at me now her eyes barely visible through her thick opaque glasses. Her face droops, her cheeks sag from years of frowning at disappointment. She is judging me. She knows everything, she knows I am not his buddy, she knows about the blog entry I have not written yet about her and her husband.
“Are you coming back inside?”
“I’ll be back inside soon.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m fine. I'll be back inside soon.”
She looks at me one last time. I feel like I should say something but I am not stupid enough to do it. She turns around and goes back inside.
“She’s such a bitch. She just let all the heat out and I bet she is going to turn the heat all way up. She’s always cold. I’m always hot.”
Infection and alcohol I thought.
“Do you cook Tom?”
“A little. Sam is more about cooking than I am. I do like to bake.”
“Sam does all the cooking?”
“Yes.” I refuse to correct him.
“Hey, you know what’s funny? Bonnie doesn’t cook and I do all the cooking.”
“Crazy.” I said taking a large sip of beer to speed up its consumption.
“You should come up for dinner one night.”
The beer had not even finished going down my esophagus before I quickly answered: “Oh, man. I don’t know. Monday nights we eat at my grandparents house. I work some crazy hours and I do a lot of call.” I quickly pull out the brick and mortar laying the groundwork to possibly making this the only conversation I have to have with this man for the rest of my life.
“Bullshit. You gotta be free sometime.”
“Yeah maybe. I don’t know when.”
“So you are busy Mondays, how about Tuesday night? Come up stairs. Do you like pork chops?”
“I guess they are good.”
“Oh you’ll love the way I make them. Come up around six. Or when ever you are hungry. Knock twice. If I don’t answer. I am busy. DON’T come in.”
Suddenly I wanted the super power to know precisely all his busy times so I could knock on his door. I sipped the six ounce Miller Light.
Sam was crossing through the parking lot. Dante was finished with his business or at least Sam was done walking him.
“Hey Sam. Did he do anything?” I asked from a distance that was probably to far away.
“He peepee’d and poopie’d.” She said just barely audibly. I doubt Tony heard her.
“Great.” We both waited in silence as Sam made it over. Dante sniffed Tony for a moment and kept walking towards me. He went up on his hind legs and I petted him as he stretched.
“He’s a good poochie.” Tony said.
“Yes he is.”
“Still talking?” Sam asked me.
“Yep. I'll be back inside soon.” I wondered if this was the same thing Tony just told Bonnie.
“Well. Come back inside soon. I want to go to bed.” Sam didn’t want to go to bed. She is an insomniac, she just wanted try and rescue me. She took Dante inside.
“The reason I want to invite you dinner was because I wanted to talk to you about something. A business opportunity.” The other shoe finally fell.
“What do you mean - a business opportunity?”
“Tom. Listen. One word. GOLD. It's all done through the post office. You get the gold. Buy, sell, ship. It's pure profit. I want to bring you and Sam in on this because, Tom, I’m telling you. Pure. Profit. Cash. Money.”
“I told you, Sam and I are very busy with work I don’t have time for a second job.”
“It’s only a couple of hours. A day.” There was definitely a two count between those qualifiers. “Tom. I am telling you this is great opportunity for you and Sam to make some pure profit. And I could really use your help. You see I can’t use my address anymore. So what I want to do is bring you in on this. And we will use BOB’s address upstairs. Listen, Tom. I’ve already spoken to Shane about this and he is in on it. We will take the gold. At the post office turn it to cash.” This explanation is compete with hand gestures in the form of a fist which moves inward towards the his chest (which I assume represents the gold coming into his possession) and a hand with its fingers fanned out which moves outwards into the space between us (which I also assume to be the profit with which he and I share).
At this point I still have no idea what his business model looks like but I believe I saw it on an episode of South Park.
Step 1: One word: GOLD
Step 2: ?????
Step 3: PROFIT!!!
“I’ve always been really good with money. When I was fifteen I was making 20 dollars an hour. And that was when I was fifteen. I had so much money I bought a car I could not even drive. Big old Buick, gangster spoke wheels with the letter “T” in the center of the rims. “
“Wow.” I said plainly. Not impressed with 15 year old Tony at all. This whole evening was a lead up to this point. He planned this. All of it. I started to doubt he was even a drunk alcoholic at this point. His seemingly spot on portrayal of a person with early signs of Wernicke–Korsakoff was a farce. Diabolical. His planter dumpster gift, friendly unwanted beer over friendly unwanted conversation, his wallet-penis, the Irish racist bonding, all of it was foreplay for his business opportunity. Fuck Tony.
The door opens behind me. It’s Sam, holding out my phone.
“Your phone, it’s been ringing off the hook. I think it’s the hospital.”
“Is it?” It’s not. Sam is lying to me and it’s wonderful. She is my deceitful lying angel coming to save me.
“Tony, I have to go. Sorry about this.” I put my hand out to shake his hand goodnight. He takes it. His hand is freezing now.
“It's okay. Yeah, Goodnight Tom! I’ll see you around.”