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Down On Luck
by David W. Friedman
Nathan walked quickly down Broadway. Under the frozen neon lights his breath streamed past him in small clouds. He glanced at his watch as he dodged the smelly, drunken panhandlers, the leather—jacketed punks with rust-colored hair, the jittery pedestrians waiting at the espresso cart, and the elderly shoppers walking to the cheapest bargain in instant cocoa. He zoomed past the over—packed cafes and the empty Middle—Eastern fast food joint. I wonder how they make any money since there’s never anyone in there, he thought. He walked briskly and arrived home to a chorus of worried harassment.
“Nathan, Jesus Christ, you know we have to pick my aunt up at the airport in 20 minutes. Where were you?” Ruth asked.
Nathan looked at his wife and blinked. The cat was mewing at his legs. He loosened the zipper on his wool jacket and wheezed, “The bus broke down...I rushed here...twelve blocks.”
“That doesn’t matter. Let’s go!”
On the way to the airport Nathan reflected on their life together. They still had the old Subaru they bought when they first got married, and after three years they still lived in the same cramped one bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill. Money was an elusive commodity. They still had spaghetti every Wednesday and chicken every Saturday because these meals were inexpensive. Nathan burped and remembered the cheap can of chili con carne he’d had for lunch that day. He recalled the congealed red grease on the top of the lid and the suspiciously symmetrical cubes of meat. The thought of it upset his stomach.
“Honey, did you pay the car insurance?” he asked his wife.
“No, not yet, because we don’t have enough money right now. If I pay right on the 13th the check won’t clear until payday, but if I send it now it’ll bounce.”
“Good Lord, it’s the same thing every month. We have to juggle the rent, then the phone bill, then the electric bill. I’m sick of it. Now I have to pick up your rich aunt from Boston. Christ! Why can’t she take a cab, for God’s sake?”
“Don’t get mad at her. She doesn’t like cabs. She thinks they’re dirty and impersonal. She only visits once a year. You can drive her from the airport. You act like you don’t like her.”
“I don’t. Too dirty, my ass. Too expensive. What a penny pincher. Why doesn’t she pay us for the ride?”
“Nathan!” she scolded. They drove in silence to the airport.
The airport was awash with people. The garage was crowded with cars circling continuously looking for spaces. The terminal was a cacophony of screams, machines, and the buzz of thousands of voices.
Little children ran away from their parents and under the feet of strangers. Nathan looked about uneasily. The crowds annoyed him.
“What baggage carousel is the old witch at?”
“Stop that, Nathan! Stop calling my aunt those names. I don’t know. Let’s look at the TVs.”
The carousel was at the far end of the farthest terminal from where they stood. They weaved their way through the crowds, sidestepped the errant children to finally arrive at the carousel 15 minutes later. And there waited Aunt Louisa.
She stood there as if she were posing for the statue that would remember her to history. She was imperious with her mink—collared overcoat and steel-grey hair. Her eyes were an icy blue and Nathan thought they looked out at the world coldly and cruelly.
“Darling, darling Ruth! Oh my, it’s wonderful to see you after such a long trip. Oh darling,” Louisa cried as she took Ruth in a hug. Nathan stood off to the side and stared at them.
“Oh, Auntie Louisa, I’m so glad to see you too.”
Louisa looked up to see Nathan and frowned slightly. “Here is my luggage. Carry them to the car! Ruth and I need to catch up on things.” Nathan’s mouth dropped open.
Ruth whispered in Nathan’s ear, “Don’t start anything. She just got here. Let her have some slack.” He reached down and grabbed the bags.
The trip from the airport was a forum for Louisa’s opinions on the world. The West Coast was a moral wasteland filled with snake-handling fundamentalists and dope-taking hippies. The homeless were less than human, thank God the Republicans were still in office, and Nathan’s driving was atrocious. She also gave a detailed account of her trip beginning with her chauffeured ride to the airport. She evidently knew everything and everybody. Nathan was not convinced.
Although Louisa was staying at the Olympic Four Seasons she wanted to see where Ruth and Nathan lived. He protested that it was the same apartment she had seen last year, but Louisa insisted and Ruth acquiesced. A vagrant sat in the doorway of the laundry across the street, drinking wine from a paper bag. Louisa shriveled her nose in distaste.
“Oh, those filthy winos are terrible. They don’t care for themselves. They expect respectable people to feed and clothe them. They’re less than human if you ask me.” The cat mewed sharply as they entered the apartment.
“You still have that dirty cat I see. The whole house smells like cat doings.”
“Cats do, Aunt Louisa,” explained Ruth as she fed the cat. Nathan just glowered.
“Ruth, you need to get new furniture and move any from this slum,” continued Louisa.
“We would Louisa,” said Nathan, “but we don’t have enough money. We would love to move, but we don’t have enough money.”
“That’s because you don’t earn enough. If you’d gotten a position with that brokerage firm like I’d suggested instead of starting that bookstore...it must be a tremendous cash drain for you both. Ruth darling, do you still work?” Nathan’s face turned a deep red. He quickly turned and left the apartment.
He knew something had to be done. Humiliation was paramount now. He pounded his fist in his hand under the carnival lights of the street and shivered against the cold. There must be a way, he thought. There must be a way.
“Spare some change buddy?” His thoughts were interrupted by a stinking man dressed in ragged clothes, greasy sneakers, ripped pants, a dirty ski cap, and torn blankets. He was one of Louise’s “less than humans.” Nathan opened his mouth to say no when he was struck by the perfect idea.
“I have more than spare change for you, pal, much more than that!” he exclaimed grabbing the man’s outstretched hand. The disheveled man’s look of surprise was quickly lost among the crowd of faces along Broadway.
“If you’d come out to Boston everything would be wonderful. Nathan could work for my broker’s firm and give up this nonsense bookstore. You could stop working and have a baby. It would be what my poor dead sister would have wanted.”
“I’m very happy here, Aunt Louisa. I’ve told you that before. Nathan’s shop is doing well for a young business. In a few years he’ll be making more money and then we’ll think about having a baby. Until then we’ll get by.”
The front door suddenly opened. Nathan stood there grinning, his arm resting on the shoulder of the man he’d met on Broadway. Ruth looked at them with fear and dismay while Louisa dropped her teacup.
“Honey, look who it is! It’s my brother, Harold, come to visit. I haven’t seen him in six years. Come on in, Harold, and meet everybody.”
They entered the apartment slowly with Nathan pushing Harold along. Nathan navigated Harold right in front of Louisa.
“Harold, this is my wife, Ruth. And this is Ruth’s aunt, Louisa. She’s visiting us also.” Harold extended his right hand. black with dirt and grease, for her to shake. His fingernails were long, discolored, and gnarled. Long tangled hair hung down over half his face, obscuring his expression. Louisa rose from the sofa, gasped, and timidly extended her hand. Their hands touched briefly, together for not longer than a single up and down. He withdrew his hand and she sat down quickly.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Ruth whispered fiercely in Nathan’s ear. Nathan kept grinning.
“You son of a bitch, you’d better explain yourself to me right now.”
“I’m going to make us rich,” he whispered back.
“I’m glad we’ve all met. Harold has told me that he’s been living on the streets these last six years, drifting from city to city, begging and drinking. Now he has come to me for help. He wants to get clean and straight. He wants treatment.” Nathan walked toward Louisa and sat down next to her.
“Unfortunately, I can’t afford to help. Harold tells me it takes four to six months and costs twenty thousand dollars. I can’t help my brother.” He thought about Bambi, emergency rooms, and dead kittens, and began to cry.
“Is this true, Harold?” asked Louisa.
“Yes, I want to get treatment,” he replied in a soft voice.
“Why, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Well, I want to finish my doctorate in chemical engineering. It’s been awhile, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I’ve got two loose-leaf binders filled with notes in a locker at the bus station.”
This is too good to be true, Nathan thought, this guy is a great natural actor.
“Yes, Louisa, if Harold gets treatment I could try and get him accepted at the university. But I need the twenty thousand dollars,” Nathan added.
“Let me think further on this,” Louisa said and asked Nathan to drive her to her hotel. That night Ruth let Harold sleep on the couch and made Nathan sleep on the floor.
As Ruth made Harold breakfast the next morning Louisa called. She asked that Nathan bring Harold to her hotel so she could speak with him some more. Between stabbing back pains caused by sleeping on the floor Nathan wondered what this meant. If she dug deeper into Harold’s story she would discover the truth. However, Harold had come up with that wonderful story about the doctorate and the notes. Nathan trusted the money was soon to be his.
Around six that evening, Louisa arrived at their apartment by taxi. With her was a nice looking man of around thirty.
“I just came by to say goodbye,” she said.
“So soon! But Auntie, you just got in last night.”
“I know, dearest, but Harold needs my help. We’re flying to Boston tonight and Doctor Pendergast says there is a wonderful treatment program all ready for him when he arrives.”
“Harold’s going with you?” Nathan gulped. How could this have happened, he thought miserably to himself.
“Of course, Nathan. I have the resources to take care of him. You and Ruth don’t. You can’t even afford new furniture. Goodbye.” She hugged Ruth and left.
“Goodbye, and thanks for everything,” said Harold. clean-
shaven, freshly barbered, and dressed in a new blue suit. He looked like a stockbroker.
Nathan received a letter about seven months after Louisa’s visit. He read it on the bus home from the bookstore. Harold wrote that he was at MIT. Louise’s friend, one of the regents at the school, set up an interview for him. He expected his doctorate in two years. He was very happy and hadn’t had a drink the whole time. Nathan finished the letter. Then the bus broke down and Nathan walked home twelve blocks.
by David W. Friedman
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