Another untitled short story from the archives to finish the week. Another photo from my last trip to Duluth before my life changed.
UNTITLED - by Jonathan K. Lee
For years we shared recipes with Ian and his wife Martha, fetched the Times for each other and baby-sat each other's kids. Ian helped me put up my deck, and I hauled bags of soil for his tomato plants and roses. We planted matching dogwoods in our areaways and painstakingly restored the bluestones instead of re-paving our sidewalks in concrete as so many of the other brownstoners were doing. We played poker the first Friday of every month with Harry Lyons and Bill Storch, the only African American on our block. Our daughters went to private school together. We were as close to being family as any two groups of people could be without actually having blood ties.
Until last autumn.
Connie and I like to sleep late on Sunday. Ian was usually up at the crack of dawn. He took long walks before breakfast, sometimes with Martha but usually by himself. He wandered through Prospect Park, hiked down to Grand Army Plaza or occasionally explor ed the Irish neighborhood bordered by Greenwood Cemetery. On his way home he picked up two copies of the Times and deposited one of them on our front stoop before rustling up breakfast for his wife and daughter. In return, Connie and I never took a ride upstate without bringing him and Martha a basket of apples, peaches or whatever was in season
What really happened that particular Sunday morning I may never know. But at 9:15 or 9:30 my wife came rushing into the bedroom shouting, "Ian's been arrested!"
I was only half-awake and didn't understand what she was saying until she explained that Ian had just called from the 78th Precinct to ask if we could get him a lawyer.
"Arrested for what?"
"He said something about a demented woman bringing charges against him. He said he was only allowed one phone call. He wants you to get hold of Charlie Foxx.
"Charlie's a real estate attorney."
"Maybe he can recommend a real lawyer."
"Did Ian say what the charge was?"
"Just something about a crazy woman."
She was close to tears. Maybe if I had taken the call myself I would have reacted the same way. But the idea of Ian getting arrested seemed so absurd that I still had trouble believing it.
"You told Martha?"
"No. Would you do it?"
"Alright. But do me a favor and find Charlie Foxx's number--his home phone."
I went next door and broke the news to Ian's wife. For the better part of a minute she stood motionless, covering her mouth with her hand. She was wearing a blue robe she had put on to start coffee in her country kitchen. I made her sit down and drink som e, but she still looked as if I had just told her Ian had been run over.
"Don't worry," I said. "It's just some kind of stupid mistake."
As I was speaking the phone rang--Connie calling to relay Charlie Foxx's number.
"How is Martha taking it?" she asked.
"Should I come over?"
"That might not be a bad idea."
Charlie was home but he didn't know any criminal lawyer who would be willing to run down to the 78th Precinct on a Sunday morning.
"What did this friend of yours do?"
"I don't know. Some woman brought charges."
"This is kind of out of my line."
"For Christ's sake, Charlie, the man's in jail."
"I know. But chances are they won't arraign him till the morning anyhow. They wouldn't even be holding him if it wasn't a felony charge."
"Felony?" I said, causing Martha, who had been starting to calm down under Connie's ministrations, to go catatonic again. "Charlie," I said more quietly, "can't you, you know, bail him out or something?"
"Not before he's arraigned."
"He just has to sit in the precinct house until tomorrow?"
"They'll probably transfer him to the lockup on Atlantic Avenue. They might have done so already."
"Sorry, chum. That's how these things work. But let me try calling a couple of my colleagues. They might know something--or at least put me on to someone who does."
I didn't have the heart to tell Martha what Charlie Foxx said. Instead, I assured her that he was making some calls to contact an appropriate attorney. Then I headed back to my own house to make breakfast for Tanya, leaving Connie to look after Martha. Co nnie's a brick at times like this. She once sat through a ten-hour operation with a neighbor whose husband had colon cancer.
It was only when I was alone with the mixing bowls that I had a chance to think. I had known Ian about six years--not a long time as friendships go. Even so, six years is not six minutes, and nothing during that time had prepared me for the shock of heari ng that my friend was about to be charged with a serious crime. Not that I believed for a moment he was guilty of anything criminal. Even so, the police did not make a habit of arresting white middle-class males just for taking a walk in the park.
"How's Martha doing?" I asked Connie when she returned.
"I gave her Valium and called her sister."
"She's with her now?"
"She's on the way. Honey, you don't really think Ian did something?"
I was at the sink, scouring the grill. Out in the yard a bluejay was perched on the handlebars of Tanya's trike. The big maple which made it next to impossible to grow anything but ivy under its massive spread was starting to shed its leaves. In a couple weeks it would be time to start getting ready for our Halloween party. I wondered if Ian would be able to attend. Last year he came dressed as a monk. His wife came as a prioress with a slit habit that exposed one leg almost to the hip where she wore a c rimson garter. It was a surprising getup for a woman who never used a four-letter word and even on the hottest summer day sported nothing more revealing than Bermuda shorts.
Charlie Foxx called back to say he had gotten in touch with someone willing to take Ian's case. He had also found out what the charge was: Sexual Molestation.
The lawyer Charlie had contacted promised to pay Ian a visit that afternoon. I didn't much care for the way he sounded on the phone, like a dentist who was putting himself out to handle a bad tooth that should have come out years ago. He said he would try to get back to me after he saw Ian. He said there was a possibility that Ian would be arraigned that same day but that there was no point to our going down to the court without knowing for sure.
It was not going to be an ordinary Sunday--yard work, a nap after lunch followed by an excursion to one of the malls in Jersey or Long Island. Getting Ian legal counsel had taken up most of the morning, and Tanya and Melissa had play rehearsal in the afte rnoon. Needless to say, my nap went by the boards. I fussed in the basement and pruned the dogwood in the areaway (I would have pruned Ian's as well but was afraid his wife might take it as a bad omen). But the day seemed to go on forever.
At 5:00 the lawyer called to say that Ian had been to court and was being released on bond. We could come down to take him home.
It seemed like the end of a bad dream. I rushed next door to tell Martha. She started sobbing so hard that I decided I'd best collect Ian on my own.
I found him sitting on the deserted steps of the Supreme Court building. He didn't look especially unkempt, but he had a jail-worn, almost homeless look. He's tall and lean but a lot more sturdy than he looks. He's also the cheerful sort, always smiling w hether he's in a genuinely good mood or has had a setback of some kind. But that cloudy, early-autumn afternoon he looked like a lost kid.
"Can I give you a lift?"
He said very little during the drive home. I didn't ask any questions and he didn't volunteer anything. I took the long way, through Carroll Gardens where Connie and I lived when we first moved to Brooklyn. He stared at the passing stores as if we were on a six-lane Interstate.
"Can we get coffee?" he said when we reached Park Slope. "From a deli, I mean."
I bought him a ham sandwich and watched him wolf it down. But he showed no other effects of his ordeal until a police car slowed as it passed my Cherokee. Ian stopped chewing until it was gone and spilled coffee on his lap, his hand was trembling so badly .
Martha broke into a fresh shower of tears when I handed her husband over to her. But Ian scarcely took the time to thank me before making it clear that he wanted to be left alone. I was a little non-plussed but told myself that the man had to be out of so rts after what he had been through.
"Stop by later," I said, "after you've had a rest."
I expected him at least to telephone. But as nine o'clock passed, and then ten, I began to feel a little miffed. I had, after all, taken the trouble to find him a lawyer who got him released without his having to spend the night in jail. And Connie had lo oked after his wife and daughter. We had devoted our entire Sunday to him.
"If he has nothing to hide, why is he avoiding us?" Connie said as we were getting ready for bed.
"Maybe he fell asleep early," I said, pulling on my pajamas. "Maybe he got drunk."
"I mean, how well do we really know him?"
"Only," I said, checking the alarm on the clock radio, "about as well as we know each other."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"That nobody really knows anyone else inside and out."
She didn't reply. She just turned out the light without asking as she usually does if I wanted to read for a while.
Ian's case was scheduled to go to court the following week. Neither Connie nor I had seen him since the day of his arrest. Martha seemed embarrassed by his seclusion but excused it on the grounds that he was busy with his job. Connie and I had a ton of wo rk to do for our Halloween party, so I decided to let him come round in his own good time.
Wednesday night his lawyer called to ask if we would be willing to testify as character witnesses. Of course, we agreed. The lawyer, somebody named Briteman, said he didn't expect it would come to a trial, but he was putting a defense together just in cas e. "The complainant is sticking to her guns," he said. "I'll make a motion to dismiss, but that will just be for the record. I'm sure I can arrange a plea bargain to a misdemeanor."
"You mean he could actually be convicted of something?"
"It's this woman's word against his. Plus they got a witness."
"The woman must be a nut case."
"Actually she's some kind of high-powered executive. I wouldn't like to see her take the stand."
Word of Ian's plight got around the neighborhood and people began asking after him. They seemed sympathetic and, for the most part, agreed to sign affidavits on his behalf.
Then, Saturday morning Ian turned up at our house as if nothing unusual had happened and began retailing the usual gossip about his job--an exclusive private school for rich kids and diplomats' children. He had a new story about the Ecuadorian janitor and the millionaire parents of a Japanese sophomore. As he mugged his way through it--some confusion about the school toilets and the principal's office--imitating the Latino janitor and the prim Japanese in turn, he seemed a bit more eager to please than us ual but otherwise very much the old Ian. I didn't mention the court case, and he never alluded to it himself. When the coffee klatch broke up Connie and I headed out to Long Island to buy Tanya a new winter coat.
The hearing was scheduled for the 28th. Halloween fell on a Sunday, so we had decided to have the party Saturday night. Our Halloween bash has become the main social event in that neighborhood. We held the first one eleven years ago just as a get-together for a few neighbors. But as our circle of friends widened, so did the guest list, until we now find ourselves entertaining thirty or more couples.
Making it a costume affair was Ian's idea. People quickly began vying with each other to come up with the most original outfits. We even give out an award--a bottle of Dom Perignon.
Thursday evening Ian called and for the first time spoke about his court case.
"Briteman says he thinks he can strike a deal with the assistant district attorney. It should all be over soon."
"That's wonderful," I said. "You must feel so relieved."
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. We both are. And we're both very grateful to you and Connie."
I told him I hoped to see him at the party, not knowing how he felt about making an appearance in public. He assured me that he and Martha were looking forward to the affair. "We wouldn't miss it for the world."
Saturday was cold and sunny--pumpkin weather. Connie finished with the hors d'oeuvres by lunchtime. The main dishes were already in the freezer. We spent most of the afternoon cleaning and decorating, including the carving of a huge jack o'lantern to set out in the areaway. Tanya and I did the last-minute shopping and swept up the leaves. Then we vacuumed and put the finishing touches on our costumes. I was dressing up as Franklin Roosevelt, with crutches, Connie as Eleanor. Tanya was going as Shirley Tem ple.
The guests began arriving shortly after eight. Half an hour later there was a crush around the hors d'oeuvres. The white wine and bourbon were flowing freely.
Ian and Martha had never been among the first guests to arrive at our previous parties. But as it got to be nine o'clock and then quarter-after, I began to worry.
Finally the doorbell rang. I had been holding forth about dry rot back at the booze table, half a house from the front door. At first it was difficult to see through the mix of witches, devils and assorted creatures of the night in my parlor. But as Ian a nd his wife began threading their way through the crowd, shaking hands and trading back slaps, I was finally able to make out their costumes.
Ian was dressed in prison clothes. Martha had on a guard's uniform.Ian's zebra-stripe long johns included an oversize necktie, and he was carrying a black briefcase, the same he brought to work each morning. Martha's uniform was mini-skirted and included some heavy cleavage.
There was a round of applause. There didn't seem any doubt who would carry home the Dom Perignon.
I couldn't help admiring the man's pluck. Of course, Martha looked like she was being roasted on a slow spit, but her pained smile never flagged as Ian escorted her through the crowd, his wrist shackles attached to her belt by a silver chain.
I kissed her heavily rouged cheek and offered a glass of white wine. Ian asked for bourbon.
"You look . . . fetching," I said to Martha.
"It was Ian's idea, of course."
He, meanwhile, was bantering with Ed Nugent, a stockbroker who helped him refinance his mortgage a couple years back.
"Leave it to Ian to face an issue head-on," I said. But Martha looked so uncomfortable I let Connie take over the conversation and went to fetch more liquor from the pantry downstairs.
When we first bought the house we did all our entertaining in the basement and used the parlor level as bedrooms, renting out the two top floors for extra income. I still haven't gotten used to having an entire house to myself. The pantry, a kind of vesti bule between the old kitchen and the back yard, was well-stocked not just with liquor but with Connie's preserves and canned goods of every variety. What I didn't expect to find there was Bill Storch and Hal Sternberg's wife, going at it against a shelf o f empty Mason jars. Mimi's blouse was wide open. Bill's face was buried inside.
I slipped out the basement exit to the street. It was a cool, crisp night. I welcomed the fresh air after the steamy scene I had just stumbled on. The sky was dotted with bright stars. There was no one else about. Connie's jack o'lantern was my only compa ny, its ferocious grin burning into the quiet night. I took a couple deep breaths, then let myself in through the parlor entrance.
By now there were people crowded all the way from the entrance foyer to the food tables at the back of the house. Just saying hello to all the guests I had not yet greeted took half an hour. Happily, I didn't run into the spouses of the pantry lovers.
Ian was dancing with Martha. They were, in fact, the only couple dancing, the music virtually inaudible through the din of conversation, his cheek pressed against her blue guard's cap, an inebriate grin creasing his handsome face.
I found Connie refilling the guacamole dip and whispered what I had discovered in the basement.
"My God," she said, "what are we going to do?"
Noting that a few heads had turned, I told her to keep on with the guacamole while I made sure that the two ignorant spouses stayed clear of the basement.
Hal Sternberg had come dressed as his wife's pimp in a wide-brim hat and satin suit. To my surprise, I found him in deep conversation with Betty Storch, her small face tightly framed by a white wimple. I decided to leave well-enough alone.
Ian and Martha were still dancing. I admired his nerve, making a joke out of his misfortune. His efforts seemed to be having the desired effect. He had won over even those few guests who had been inclined to be stand-offish. Of course, all that wine and b ourbon helped.
The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. The basement lovers rejoined the party without anyone apparently being the wiser. Ian and Martha became just two other guests.
I felt as if a terrible cloud had passed from all our heads. The talk the next morning was therefore not about Ian, who seemed fully rehabilitated into society, but about Bill and Mimi.
Connie was furious.
"How dare they use my house as a brothel! In all the years we've been giving the party we never had anyone behave like that."
"Wasn't there something involving Joe Ferrano and Sally Rourke a few years back?"
"Don't be ridiculous. All that happened was Joe dropped an anchovie down the front of her dress."
"And tried to remove it with his tongue."
"They were drunk. Besides, it happened in full view of everyone at the party, not in a deserted pantry."
A few days later Ian called to tell me that the district attorney had decided to prosecute.
"Briteman says they've come up with a second witness, some kid lurking in the bushes."
"Has the kid positively identified you?"
"I have no idea. Briteman says it might be a bluff, to see if they can drive a harder bargain."
"Did you see anyone like that around?"
There was a pause while, I assumed, Ian tried to remember. But he said, "What do you mean, 'Did I see anyone?' You seem to forget I didn't do anything. Ergo, I wasn't looking to see who might be watching."
"I just meant that if you were in that area of the park . . ."
"I wasn't in the park that morning. I didn't see any kid. I didn't molest any woman."
"I'm sorry, Ian. I didn't realize you weren't in the park. I just assumed . . ."
"That I go out on Sunday mornings to cop a quick feel down by the Tennis House?"
"That's not fair. I never believed for a moment you were guilty of anything."
There was another silence. This time I didn't presume to divine its meaning. Then he said, "I'm sorry. I've got no business talking to you that way. You've been a prince throughout this whole business. I'm just so goddamn fed up. Why did that stupid woma n have to pick me out of the lineup?"
"Do you know anything about her?"
"I'm not even sure she really exists. She must be a nut job is all I can figure."
"Has your lawyer explored that possibility?"
"He's still too impressed by her corporate credentials. He thinks a jury'll believe anything she says. Do you realize I could lose my job? What do I do then? Who would hire a teacher convicted of sexual assault?"
"I think you're doing the right thing--pleading innocent, I mean. You can't afford a conviction, even to a lesser offense."
"You're right. And I still don't know how to thank you."
The trial began the following week. The first days were occupied with jury selection, so I didn't ask for any time off from work. Instead, I tried to get as much done as possible so I could be free when the prosecutor was ready to make his opening stateme nt.
Only, as it turned out, it was a she, an attractive redhead with ambition written all over her freckled face. She seemed energy personified in a snugly tailored suit that did not go unnoticed by the judge, a bald sexagenarian whose head was barely visible above his gavel. To make matters worse, Ian's lawyer was a short, sallow-face man in a mis-size gabardine with bad teeth and a lecher's grin that he flashed every time he finished a sentence, causing jurors and spectators alike to wince.
Ian was charged with "fondling and pressing" the breasts and buttocks of a woman about ten years older than the ADA--another redhead, who could have passed for her sister. Each time Briteman referred to the charge he flashed his dreadful grin to show disd ain, but the effect was scurrilous.
My faith suffered its first blow when one of the local papers,a rag that kowtows to the borough's political hacks, ran a front-page story about the trial complete with a photo of Ian in handcuffs. The text described him as a teacher at a "plush Manhattan academy" and "frequent early-morning sojourner in the area's parks and cemeteries." It made him sound like a ghoul. The story included the complainant's account of the alleged molestation and no doubt made for spicy reading in the borough's laundromats an d pizzerias.
We had driven Ian and Martha to court the first day of the trial. The atmosphere in my Cherokee had been sober but hopeful. But the morning after the story appeared on the front page of The Brooklyn Journal the mood in the Jeep turned gloomy.
The prosecutor was clever enough not to portray Ian as a confirmed sex pervert. "Temptation beckoned" was the way she put it. "There seemed to be no one about, so he took his opportunity." The jury--four men and eight women, all but three of them black--l istened attentively. Occasionally one of them glanced toward the defendant. I made an effort to see Ian as the jurors might, but all I could think was that if I were black I wouldn't give a damn what some white man did to a white woman on a Sunday morning in Prospect Park.
When Briteman rose to make his opening statement, the jurors who had been listening to the ADA like well-behaved fourth-graders suddenly looked skeptical. The prosecution's remarks had sounded rehearsed, but that only seemed in keeping with her teacher-li ke persona. But Briteman had "lawyer" written all over him.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury," he began in a heavy Brooklyn accent, hitching up his baggy trousers, "my client is an honorable, happily-married man who would no more think of sexually molesting a strange woman than the Man in the Moon."
Ian was convicted and sentenced to three years probation with six months community service. He was also ordered to undergo psychotherapy.
Martha broke down when the verdict was handed down. Ian himself showed no emotion. During the ride home he still said nothing, staring out the window just as he did the day I collected him from jail, his eyes moist, gnawing on his lip.
He was indeed forced to resign from his teaching job and has taken a position with a real estate agency. He works most evenings and weekends, so he no longer attends our poker games or stops by to share a cup of coffee. He exercises in a gym and never, as far as I can tell, ventures into the park.
Most of our neighbors assume he really is guilty of something, an attitude which angered me until I realized that if they thought otherwise they would have to admit that the same thing could happen to them. I myself have become very careful about which st rangers I speak to and am reluctant to give one of the neighbor's children a ride in my car unless another adult is present.
Sometimes as I lie in bed at night waiting to fall asleep, I try to imagine what it must be like for him, losing his job, the respect of his friends, being looked on with constant suspicion. I wonder if these same people would also put me at arm's length the way they have Ian.
Then I think about that Sunday morning when the "incident" was supposed to have happened. I put myself in that woman's place and try to come up with some plausible reason why she should make such an accusation. I review the trial itself, going over everyo ne's testimony, recall Ian's deadpan expression despite what must have been three hellish days. I think back to Yankee games we went to, school bake sales and trips to the beach when the kids were younger.
Sometimes I continue these thoughts into my unconsciousness. Only, in my dream reality becomes altered in strange and confusing ways: Ian is found innocent and everyone leaves the courtroom to celebrate, leaving me behind handcuffed to a bench and waiting in dread for the judge to appear.
Connie has told me Ian and Martha have put their house up for sale, though there's no sign attached yet to the building. It seems absurd that they should have to move. On the other hand, maybe he'll be better off someplace where nobody knows him.
Meanwhile, I go about my usual routine taking the subway to work, putting out the garbage. I still put Ian's empties back inside his areaway just as I always have, but wonder how I'll feel when a stranger is living in his house. When I share these thought s with Connie she usually says something optimistic like, "Maybe it's all for the best."
But I still wonder.
Sorry for hitting you with three stories this week.