"That's exactly what I told him."
"You say you're willing to send him half."
"Five thousand dollars. And I told him that's it, the well just ran dry. Next time you're in trouble, call somebody else."
I said, "When was your mother's funeral? Two weeks ago?"
"Something like that."
"He seemed the same as always. A little subdued, given the occasion, but not like somebody with this hanging over his head."
"That was before his boss figured out what was going on. Andy never expects trouble until he's in it. So he was feeling fine, and then he got back to Tucson and the roof fell in."
"And he called you."
"Uh-huh. Day before yesterday. I sat around all day trying to figure out what to tell him."
"Did you talk about it with June?"
"No. I called him and told him what I told you I told him, and I said he should call you for the other half of the money. And he said he didn't want to do that."
"So you're calling on his behalf."
"No, he didn't want me to call you. But I'm calling you anyway."
"And what do you want me to do?"
"I don't know."
"Of course you do. You want me to kick in the other half."
"I don't even know if that's true," he said. "Maybe that's what I want. Or maybe I want you to turn him down, so that I'm not the only one turning him down, you know? I don't want my brother to go to jail."
"Or be- what was the phrase you used? A fugitive from justice? I don't want that either."
"No. Mike, can't he sell something? Didn't you say he just bought a new car?"
He snorted. "He owed more on the old car than it was worth. He used a few thousand dollars of what he stole to swing a down payment. Now the old car's paid off and he owes more on the new car than it's worth, so he's got no equity in it whatsoever. If he sold everything he owns, he could maybe scrape up a thousand dollars. If that."
"A real American success story. I suppose he's run out of friends to borrow from."
"You know Andy. He makes friends real easy. Then he throws 'em away and gets new ones. What do you want to do? I don't even know what your financial situation is. Could you come up with five thousand dollars in a hurry?"
"I could," I said. "I want to sleep on it, Michael. How about if I call you tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow's okay," he said. "He's got until the end of the month."
I'd told him I wanted to sleep on it, but I didn't get all that much sleep. Elaine and I were up talking until late, and when she got up around seven she found me in the kitchen with a pot of coffee.
"It's not the money," I said.
"Of course not."
"Except in a funny way it is. The amount's a factor. If it was five hundred dollars, I'd write out a check and put it in the mail. I wouldn't have to think twice."
"And if it was fifty thousand dollars, well, I still wouldn't have to think twice, because it would be out of the question. But five thousand's right in the middle, small enough to manage but big enough to notice."
"We can afford it, baby."
"I know we can afford it."
"We wouldn't have to liquidate assets, or tighten our belts. We've got it in the bank."
"But then again, you just said it. It's not the money."
I drank some coffee. I said, "He's the one that looks like me, you know."
"Michael takes after his mother. He's heavyset, too, like the men in her family. Andy looks like his father."
"He could do worse."
"I think he drinks like his old man, too. I wonder how many DUIs he's had, how many cars he's cracked up. I don't know what the hell I should do."
She poured herself some coffee, sat down across the table from me.
"If he had to take after me," I said, "it's a shame he didn't go all the way and get on the cops. Then he could steal with both hands and not worry about the consequences."
"You were never a thief."
"I took money that wasn't mine. I generally found a justification for it, but people generally do. Look at Andy. He was just borrowing it, he was going to pay it back. You know, all I do is keep going around in circles. I don't want him rotting in an Arizona jail, and I don't want to buy his way out of it, either."
"It's tricky," she said. "But it's your call."
"What if it were yours?"
"That's hard," she said, "because it's not, and it shouldn't be."
"What would they tell you at Al-Anon?"
"Not to be an enabler," she said without hesitation. "That I'd be doing him no favor by getting him out of a jam. That all I'd really achieve would be to keep him from getting the lesson. That he'd never be able to change his behavior until he experiences the consequences of it. That, wherever he was supposed to go, he'd get there faster without my help."
"So there's your answer. You wouldn't send him the money."
"No, I'd send it."
"You would? You just said- "
"I know what I said. But there's another principle, and that's that every dog gets one bite. He may have done this before, but this is the first time he's come to you."
"He didn't come to me. He told his brother- "
"He told his brother not to call you, but at the same time he put his brother in a position where he had to call you. So in that sense he came to you."
"So you would send him the money."
"And I'd tell him it was the last time."
"He'll fuck up again."
"Of course he will."
"And next time you'd turn him down."
She nodded. "No matter what. Whether he'd go to jail or get his legs broken, I'd turn him down."
"But this time you'd send the money." I drank some more coffee and said, "You know, I think you're right."
"I'm right for me. What's right for me isn't necessarily right for you."
"This time it is. I'll call Michael."
But not just then; it was, as she pointed out, four in the morning in California. I didn't ask her what time it was in Paris.
I was relieved to have the decision made, but I felt less sanguine about the whole business as the morning wore on. My mind kept fussing with it like a kitten with a ball of yarn, and I had to remind myself over and over that I'd made up my mind.
And I was forever checking my watch, wishing it was time to make the call, anxious to get it over with. But I kept putting it off, first reluctant to chance waking him, then deciding against calling while they were at breakfast. It evidently wasn't something he wanted June to know about, so why make him take the call in another room? I could wait and reach him at the office.
T J came up around eleven, wearing khakis and a polo shirt but carrying yesterday's clipboard. He'd made notes on his trip to Williamsburg and went over them with me. The house was a three-story brick rowhouse sheathed thirty or forty years ago in garish asphalt siding. "Musta been some salesman," he said, " 'cause everybody on the block went for it. Made it a real Neighborhood Uglification project."
The siding had been stripped from the lower two floors at 168 Meserole, and they were working on the top floor. The brick underneath was going to need repointing, and a good deal of repair work, but even in its present state it looked better than what had covered it. They were doing a similar kind of work inside, deleting the improvements of previous owners and tenants, tearing out the partitions that had divided the original floor-through apartments into smaller units, pulling off the pressboard paneling and dropped-ceiling tiles, taking up the worn linoleum. The plaster was scheduled for removal from the exterior walls, to expose the brick. The three apartments would be loftlike open-plan layouts, but some half-walls were planned, to hold bookshelves and display paintings.
"Be nice when they finish it," he said. "They artists, so they need their work space. They all workin' together. Time I got there, Peter was down on the first floor, scrapin' ugly wallpaper off one wall they fixin' to keep, an' two of the others was up in Peter's place on the third floor, workin' on the brick. They got these little masks over their mouths an' noses, keep the dust out of their lungs, an' they got plaster dust coverin' the rest of them. Looked pretty comical, but I figured a buildings inspector be seein' that all the time, so I held back and didn't laugh."
Peter had the third floor to himself, he said, and he wondered if they'd put him up there because they figured he needed the exercise. He was fat, no question, but it didn't seem to slow him down any. He went up and down the stairs without getting out of breath, and he didn't have that apologetic manner that so many fat people seemed to have.
"You see him," he said, "and you say to yourself, man, this is one fat dude. You around him a little while, an' what happens is you forget he's fat. It slips your mind. And then later on, like, you spendin' time with one of the others an' then you see Peter again, and you're like, Damn, he's fat! Like you never noticed it before, 'cept you did."
I knew what he meant. I'd observed the same phenomenon with several other people, not all of them overweight. One is blind, for example, another missing an arm. The common denominator, I think, is self-acceptance, and the result is as he described it. Because they accept it, whatever it is, you stop noticing it.
Peter Meredith's therapist may not have been able to save his client's relationship with Kristin, or to trim him down to a size 42, but it sounded as though he could claim a certain degree of success.
Marsha Kittredge and Lucian Bemis had the second floor. She was a blond Wasp princess from Beaufort, South Carolina, and he was a tall gaunt black man from South Philadelphia. She was a painter, he a sculptor, and T J had decided that, once upon a time, her great-grandfather had owned his great-grandfather.
The ground floor's occupants were Ruth Ann Lipinsky, another painter, the only native New Yorker in the group, short and dark and intense, and Kieran Eklund, a painter and printmaker, who'd been doing something unspecified in Manhattan during T J's visit. T J'd thought he might stick around until Eklund got back, so he could get a look at him, but it turned out the others were going to meet Eklund in the city. They'd been anxious to clean up and get out of there, which may have prompted Peter Meredith to give T J a hundred-dollar handshake.
"Made me suspicious," he said. "Man gives you money, you got to figure it's so you'll look the other way. Started to wonder what I wasn't meant to see. Then I remembered who I supposed to be."
"A city employee."
"You right, Dwight. Man in my position, they got to pay you even if they ain't done nothin' wrong." He sighed. "Good business to be in," he said, "if only the uniforms wasn't so lame."
When I finally picked up the phone and called him, Michael was in the car, on his way to a client. "I'll make the check out to you," I said, "and put it in the mail this afternoon. For five thousand dollars. You write your own check to him, or better yet- "