We wanted to escape the family misery, and we were going to do it by moving out and getting our own place to live. That’s how we’d ended up here, walking from room to room and nodding our heads as Brian Covington, our potential new landlord, pointed out the big windows and high ceilings. “Isn’t it wonderful, the way the light pours in?” he said.
“Yes, very nice,” said my brother David, though it was obviously much more than nice. I kept silent, trying to play it cool.
“Come and see the view,” said Covington. He pulled open the door to the terrace, and the three of us stepped outside and lined up at the rail. Across the street was the East River, gray and muscular, like liquid stone. Cars slid down the FDR Drive like colored beads. To our right, the buildings of midtown looked almost close enough to touch. The scene was so absolutely, heartbreakingly beautiful that I felt a dull ache begin in my chest: this apartment, this terrace, I realized, could give us the strength we needed to break free.
“And you’re okay with fifteen hundred a month?” asked David, naming the amount we’d discussed on the phone.
Covington pressed his palms together and smiled. He was a peculiar sight: tall and very heavy—alarmingly heavy—dressed in a skin-tight undershirt and gym shorts about to burst. His voice was high and self-consciously cultivated; it sounded as if it were coming from an entirely different person, a movie actress from the 1930s, floating in a diaphanous white gown. “Well, I could get more, of course, but I just love having young people around. It’s such an exciting, inspiring, time of life.” With that, his expression turned delicate, almost a little vulnerable. “And to be completely honest, I need people who can work with me just a little bit.” He explained that he had taken this apartment and the one next door with the understanding that he would knock down the walls and combine them into a single unit, but after all the documents were finalized and all the permits arranged, management had changed its mind and blocked construction. Now he was suing the building in court. He lived in the other apartment and had decided to sublet this one out till the case was finished.
“How long will that be?” asked David.
“Their only strategy is delay, delay, delay.” Nevertheless, he didn’t want any
complications, so he needed us to use the building’s service entrance instead of the lobby. And if anyone asked, we were his cousins, here on a visit.
My hand shook with excitement as I wrote him a check. He gave us a set of keys, and David and I hurried out before he could change his mind. Safely out of sight in the elevator, we grabbed each other and began jumping up and down, too frenzied to contain ourselves any longer. I was twenty-three, David twenty-two, and we were going to live in an apartment with not one but two fancy marble bathrooms, where the water came out of silver spigots shaped like the necks of swans.
Only later, out on the street, did I consider. “Does the situation feel a little weird to you?”
It wasn’t just the idea of sneaking in the back entrance, or passing ourselves off as Covington’s relatives. Every other place we’d seen up to this point had been a dank and lightless walk-up somewhere deep in the boroughs. This was a two-bedroom-two-bath in a brand-new luxury tower by the river. It was worth four times what we were paying.
David shrugged. “We’re going to live in the kind of place we want to live in, the kind of place we deserve to live in. And we’re getting out of Hell House. That’s all that matters.”
Hell House was what he called our parents’ apartment, a four-bedroom duplex in
midtown that had once been every bit as grand as Covington’s, but in recent years had turned dark and sad. Our father was trying to pull himself back from a series of legal and financial disasters that had left him in a state of nervous collapse, struggling to keep his law practice open while taking a bewildering number of psychiatric medications. On many days, he wasn’t well enough to go to court and he lay in front of the television, smoking. When it was particularly bad, he played the radio at the same time, wrapping himself in a protective cone of noise that
nothing could penetrate. Unable to sleep at night, he went on hyper-charged eating binges, consuming absolutely everything in the refrigerator, even the mustard, the ketchup, the butter—licking soy sauce from the palm of his hand.
I’d like to say that we were kind to him, but the truth is that after so many years—six? seven?—we probably weren’t, at least not all the time. What if he jeopardized his law license and lost this second chance? What if he never got better? Our mother baited him and he yelled back, cruel exchanges that froze me in my seat, unable to move. I felt her pain and his like alternating blows of a hammer, and was therefore completely unable to feel my own. When the screaming was over, I ran upstairs to my bedroom and worked on my novel, which was about us, of course, with only the thinnest of disguises: how our father had gotten tangled up with a drug-dealing client and dragged into a DEA investigation that went on for years, till he was penniless and heartbroken. How he went to prison and came out crazy. Later in the night, overcome with guilt, I would erase the most painful parts of whatever I’d written, and the next day, I would look at the confused and listless material that was left on the page and castigate myself for being doomed to failure, to silence.
After getting back from Covington’s, David and I spent the afternoon throwing our things into trash bags and stuffing them into David’s old station wagon. A part of me wanted to acknowledge the moment—we were moving out; our childhoods were ending!—but everyone else seemed blithely uninterested. Our mother sat at the table in her nightgown, reading the Times, looking exhausted and preoccupied. Our father lay on the living room floor watching TV and eating ice cream from the carton in something like a trance. He had gotten slim in prison and was now really heavy again; not quite like Covington, but close. “Okay, we’re going,” I said to
“So long,” he said now, not even looking up.
It was a disappointing moment, especially so because he had been the one to hand me the slip with Covington’s name and number. That bit of paper had felt like a temporary return of his old self, the father with a nearly magical ability to solve any problem, the father that cared. But now he was gone again.
Dusk was falling as we drove to Covington’s, purple and anxious. The doorman stationed at the back entrance watched with wry bemusement as we loaded the service elevator. We told him we were Brian’s cousins, and that seemed to amuse him even more. I shouldered a loose mattress; David carried another; we toted up our garbage bags stuffed with clothes. Once in the apartment, our possessions looked ratty and stained against the brilliant white walls, but I took solace in unboxing my notebooks, setting up the card table in my bedroom, putting together the desktop computer. I was wagering everything on the novel going better here, because I was wagering everything on the novel. In some sort of I had developed a confused belief that the novel was the door I would walk through into my real life, the life in which I was no longer angry or frightened or sad—the life in which I was a writer.
Just then, I heard Brian’s voice. “Is that you? Are you there?” I went out to the living
room and found David looking around, puzzled. “The intercom on the wall,” said Brian’s voice. “Press the button and speak.”
I walked over to the wall and hit the talk button. “Yes, we’re here.”
He let himself in a minute later, without bothering to knock—he held his own copy of the key unselfconsciously in his hand. He’d forgotten to explain the situation with the electricity, he said: he got the bill for both apartments, so when it came he’d tell us how much and we’d pay him. Sure, no problem, we said. Then he showed us the big multi-line phone system and told us we could use one of his lines, which would save us from having to deal with the phone company. The phone system and the intercom were all he’d managed to install before the conflict with management. Great, thank you, we said, but he seemed reluctant to leave. Barefoot, in the readyto-burst undershirt and gym shorts, he suddenly radiated a deep loneliness. “So, what is it you gentlemen do for a living, exactly?” he asked.
David was working in a lab and applying to medical schools; I was working as a tour
guide for a Japanese travel company so I could focus on my novel. Mentioning the novel put me in instant agony—only David and a couple of my close friends knew about it. But I wanted Brian to understand that we were artistic and cultured and thus worthy of the apartment, the big windows and beautifully finished wooden floors. I wanted him to like us.
“Oh, you’re a writer?” said Brian, looking delighted. “How wonderful! I’m a writer,
too!” He explained that he was working on a memoir of his experiences as the madam of a brothel here in town, a very exclusive place. The book was an explosive tell-all, catnip for the gossip columns; he had an agent, and there was a movie producer in the wings.
“Wait, a brothel?” asked David, slowly.
“A very high-class establishment,” said Brian.
David and I sat in silence, trying to fit the delicate pieces together. We had grown up around criminals, our father’s clients, and we were finding it a little scary to leave that world completely behind. And now here was Brian, from exactly the same planet of misfits, somebody we could really talk to. We looked at each other and burst out laughing at our brilliant luck.
Brian gave a theatrical sigh. “I ran it out of this apartment, actually. Not inside, it was all outcall. But I would work the phones here with a couple of girls to help me out.”
“It’s going to be a bestseller!” I said.
He kept going, obviously enjoying himself: the money, the stress, the incredibly delicate managerial problems. He sounded polished, as if he’d gone over this material before; I imagined him telling these same stories in the movie producer’s office, radiating the same enthusiasm and an odd sort of sincerity: unlike us, he was happy being himself; he wasn’t ashamed. “I have no time for moralizing hypocrites,” he said to us. “Sex is a business like any other. My clients were paying a lot of money for perfect service and I made sure they got it. We were so busy that I
couldn’t leave the phone to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t take a day off. We ordered in three meals a day and I ate while I was answering calls. Look how heavy I got.”
“I’ve always wondered who goes into that kind of work,” said David.
“My fucked-up children, the family I never had,” said Brian, suddenly wistful,
remembering. “I spoiled them rotten. I let them take complete advantage of me. And then, since I went to jail, not a word from any of them.”
It should have been obvious, but I hadn’t thought of it. A wire seemed to pull tight inside my chest; my smile disappeared.
Brian shrugged it off. “Really, it was a kind of vacation,” he continued. “They put me in the gay men’s section, and we spent most of the time vogueing.” He started to catwalk across the living room, massive yet surprisingly nimble, sucking in his cheeks, slitting his eyes, striking one ridiculous pose after another. There was no resisting the sheer silliness; our relief bubbled up, overflowed. We howled with laughter again, on and on, doubled up, nearly hysterical.
That night, I lay in bed, unable to sleep, feeling the strangeness of the new room press in on me. The place looked the opposite of a bordello—pristine white walls, blonde wood floors—but it still felt wrong, and I wondered if Brian was lying and something had happened here. Why would one man need two apartments, so many bedrooms? I thought I heard the front door opening, but when I padded out, the place was full of nothing but moonlight, glowing. I put the chain on the door. Then I used the big multi-line phone to call home and got my father. “How’s it going?” I asked, as if it weren’t midnight.
“Okay,” he said. The television was on in the background.
“So, we’re all unpacked,” I said. I wanted to tell him that we’d made a mistake, that we were coming home. At the same time, I wanted him to say that he missed us, that he was feeling better and the future would be bright. But the TV just got louder. He would do that sometimes, turn up the dial when he didn’t want to talk.
“I’m in the middle of a program,” he said.
“Okay, sure, maybe tomorrow.”
Tomorrow meant never, of course, but that was okay: he was still there, still my father. I went back to bed and slept, and in the morning, things looked better. The apartment was filled with light and a gentle silence utterly unlike our parents’ place. I pressed my hand against the wall, just to feel the calm in it, clean and white and solid. David was already in the living room, watching the sky through the window, fingertips to the glass. We drank our coffee on the terrace, looking out at the river and the tall buildings, believing once again in the extraordinary luck of it
all. Our lives were going to be purposeful and orderly and good. We were going to be happy.
Brian came over quite a bit to update us on developments with his memoir. He would walk in unannounced and stand in our living room barefoot, in the same grotesquely tight undershirt and shorts that he always wore, talking breathlessly in a bemused monologue that sometimes segued into a real monologue from a Bette Davis movies. His agent was pressuring him to name his big celebrity clients, but it was against the madam’s code of honor and he wouldn’t do it—only maybe hint, sort of. The movie producer was coming to town and wanted to take him to lunch. Everyone was pushing him to finish as quickly as he could, but he could only type so fast and no faster—which reminded him of this one time when a client, a very
famous actor whose name cannot be mentioned, called and said…
We loved these visits. Laughter felt like hope to us—though looking back, I can see that it was really sorrow that made us howl so hard. Brian had gone to prison and come out with a shrug and a book that was going to sell a million-gazillion copies, while our father had come out broken, able to do nothing but sit in the dark and cry. Our father never talked about his time behind bars, and I was too afraid to ask. Prison was the mysterious blank around which everything in our family revolved.
And yet there was something a little off-kilter about Brian, too. We were dimly aware that he never knocked, that he used his own key as if the apartment were still his own, but we didn’t really think about it until one night when we were sitting on our thrift shop couch in the living room, talking about nothing very important. Suddenly we heard Brian’s voice emanating from the intercom. “That’s a terrible idea!” he blurted, as if he couldn’t restrain himself. We laughed uproariously—it was like a sitcom, sort of—but when the implication sunk in, we fell silent: he was using the device to listen in. A couple of days later, he said something else that made us think he might be eavesdropping on our phone calls too: after all, we shared the phone system; all he had to do on his end was hit a button and lift the receiver.
David and I talked it over in my bedroom, a safe distance from the intercom. “I don’t
know. Maybe we should let it slide for now,” he said. We were getting an unbelievable bargain, and we didn’t have a lease, so we shouldn’t risk offending him. “He has boundary problems,” said David. “But that doesn’t make him a bad person.”
“He seems lonely,” I said.
Brian and I were alike that way. Fall was coming on, the summer tourism season waning, and I had more time to work on my novel, which meant that I paced the wonderfully peaceful apartment, a squeamish panic churning inside me. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I would pounce on the keyboard and type furiously, then reread, confused by the picture of my family that I saw there: childishly greedy, vain. I would spring up and start to pace again, thinking of my father when I was a little boy, how he smelled so sweetly of aftershave and hair pomade, and then I would go back to the computer and start deleting, just as I’d done back in Hell House.
So I was glad when Brian called to pass the time. He was having trouble writing, too. Chapter Twelve was killing him. Writing was so maddening, he sometimes wished he was back answering the phones, but then he remembered Rikers and began typing again.
After hanging up, I stood out on the terrace and watched the yellow taxis stream up First avenue, trying to psych myself up to go back inside and write. Life owed me this novel, I told myself. I just had to be more like Brian, more—I didn’t know how to phrase it, even in my innermost thoughts. Greedy was the only word I could come up with. More greedy.
That night, after dinner, I heard a knock on the door. Brian was in the hallway, dressed in khaki pants and a button-down shirt—the first time I’d seen him in anything other than the undershirt-and-gym-shorts combo. “I’m taking a little break, going to Atlantic City,” he said. The heliport was just across the street, by the river—it was one of the reasons he’d chosen this building. The casino flew him gratis. “The beauty of being a high roller,” he said, and walked off to the elevator.
I’d seen those helicopters rising from the little fenced in helipad, looking so incredibly urgent. Now I went out on the terrace to watch a succession of them landing and taking off into the patent-leather darkness. I didn’t know which was his, but I lingered on, suddenly full of a strange and convoluted hope. Brian liked us. Maybe he’d introduce me to his agent, or let me work on his movie, or get me a job with his producer. Maybe David and I could become his two latest fucked-up children, a new-and-improved version of the family he’d never had.
There was something oddly calming in this idea, and the writing started to go a little better. Whenever I began to panic, I would say to myself Greedy, more greedy, and think of Brian typing in the other apartment down the hall, and that would keep me from hitting the delete button. Slowly, very slowly, the pages began adding up. And then, one night, Brian knocked and said he was going to Atlantic City by bus.
“All booked up.” He asked if I could walk his dog if he didn’t manage to make it home
by morning. He’d call to let us know, and he’d leave the door open so we wouldn’t need a key.
I’d seen the dog, a horrible little shih Tzu that he carried tucked under his arm like a handbag, but of course I said yes. And then David got back from the lab and we did the obvious: walked down the hall to Brian’s apartment to take a look.
I’m not sure what we expected; something luxurious and a little outrageous, probably. What we found instead was a weird mirror-image of our own place: a single cheap couch in the middle of the vast living room and a bare mattress on the floor of one of the bedrooms, and virtually nothing else. The undershirt and gym shorts were on the floor. There was an enormous walk in closet, but almost nothing hanging in it. We went back to the living room and stood in the middle of all that nothing, his little dog running around our feet.
“It’s creepier than finding a body,” said David, looking around at the bare white walls.
I can’t say why, but it took tremendous mental effort to make the obvious connection, a feeling like walking up a flight of stairs in complete darkness, backward. “He’s in Atlantic City trying to make money,” I said.
“Everyone in a casino is trying to make money,” said David. “That’s why you go.”
“No, I mean he has no money. He’s broke.”
We’d both seen the casino buses idling at the curb, a line of elderly retirees filing on. They took three hours to reach Atlantic City and gave you a boxed lunch and forty dollars in tokens to use in the slot machines. Brian was riding one of those buses at that very moment, the boxed lunch on his lap. David’s eyes widened. “I don’t want to go back to Hell House.”
“We could rent a real apartment,” I said.
“Yeah, a dump in Bayshore, maybe, with a ninety-minute commute each way.”
“We could talk to him.”
“What good would that do? He’s a fucking liar.”
We retreated back to our own living room and flopped on the couch to think about things, talking in circles for the rest of the night—we were good at those circles, the endless restatement of the same question over and over again till it felt less menacing. The one thing we didn’t really talk about was why Brian had given us access to his apartment in the first place. Maybe he was too panicked to give it any thought, or maybe he wanted us to know, so he wouldn’t have to pretend any more. He was saying he needed us as much as we needed him. We could work together.
He never called us about the dog, so when he came by a few days later to collect the rent we all pretended that we hadn’t been inside the apartment. He was his usual bemused self, back in the undershirt and shorts. “You boys are such a pleasure to have around, I just want you to stay forever,” he said, and then offered us a deal: we could prepay the next month and he would give us a discount.
“How much?” asked David, his expression turning shrewd.
“Oh, I don’t know. Say, twenty percent?”
We did it again a couple of weeks later, when Brian dropped by to say that he found
himself mysteriously low on cash, and then again, a few weeks after that. We were now three months ahead on our rent. Then a few weeks later, we were four. “No more,” I told David.
“What if something goes wrong? We’ll lose all our money.”
“For an apartment like this, I’ll take that chance.”
It was then that the lights went out, and we lived in darkness for four days. At first, Brian told us that it was a mechanical failure, and only later that it was a billing problem. We had been paying him our share every month, so what had happened? A terrible, ridiculous accounting error. We passed over the question of where our money had gone, and in return got to listen in on the phone as he negotiated with the electric company, a bravura display of what could only be called genius. Brian was the most persuasive, reasonable, likable, nobly aggrieved and simultaneously menacing customer on the planet. He somehow managed to jump out of customer
service and work his way up the chain of command to a vice president in charge of something or other, with whom he arrived at a settlement that would cost us only pennies on the dollar. But to lock in the bargain we’d have to pay the bill right away. Would we give him the money? If we did, he’d give us a free month’s rent, which was worth a lot more.
We had no choice, really. We were already paid up four months in advance and couldn’t live in the dark all that time. So now we had five months free living ahead of us, which was good because both our bank accounts were finally empty.
I stopped by my parents’ apartment soon after, looking for some reassurance that things would be okay. But my father was in the exact same place we had left him when we moved out, watching TV in his underwear, and I felt all the old emotions rush right back in: homesickness and unrequited love and hopeless sorrow, and something that I couldn’t identify as anger but nevertheless sucked the air from my lungs. Plus, I was a traitor for having moved out, and also a fool. I crouched down beside him. “So where do you know Brian Covington from, anyway?”
He didn’t look up. “Your landlord? I was telling someone how you were looking for an apartment and he said he had one.”
“And where was that?”
“An elevator in the criminal court building.” He held up a pill bottle. “Want one?”
Brian came to us with a letter from the building saying that management knew he was subletting to us, and that doing so was in violation of his lease. He told us that, given the delicacy of the litigation already underway, we’d have to go. It was almost a relief to me, but David looked upset, as if he’d never expected this day would come. “Well, at least give us back our money,” he said, his voice warbling with emotion. We still had a four month credit.
“I will,” said Brian, “but I’ll need a little time.”
“We need it now, or we can’t afford to move.”
Brian’s expression grew haughty. He drew himself up to his full height, towering over us.
“Listen, I’d love for you two guys to be the wonderful little brothers I never had, but I can’t afford you right now.”
“What’s that mean?” asked David, trembling with anger.
“It means that if you act like a brat, I won’t give it to you, ever.”
That was our out. I got David to agree that we would leave that weekend, provided that Brian gave us a letter committing to pay us back the six thousand dollars he still owed us. Brian was fine with the idea; he wrote the letter right then and there, handed it to me, and walked out.
Of course, it was ridiculous—deep down we knew he would never pay us, and we talked about it all night, letting the anger rise and dissipate and rise again. At our worst moments, we moved away from the intercom so we could scheme about revenge.
I thought we were just blowing off steam, but the next day, David came into my bedroom and told me he’d just heard Brian’s front door slam and the elevator leave. If the door was unlocked like last time, we could get in there.
“Why?” I asked, my heart starting to catch in my chest.
“Maybe he’s got our money somewhere.”
The door was indeed unlocked, and we slipped inside. The dog ignored us. We opened closets, pulled out drawers, careful but quick. Our concentration was total, even as our hearts skittered in our bodies. We found no cash, but we came across a couple of cardboard boxes, one of which contained Brian’s memoir. On top was some correspondence from a literary agent, saying that he might be willing to look at the manuscript again when it was finished, but not before. “That fucking liar,” I whispered.
“Take a look at this,” said David, who was sifting through the other box. Court papers: the legal battle with the building was an eviction over nonpayment, not a disagreement over construction—Brian had never paid his rent, from the moment he moved in. It turned out that he wasn’t finished with his other legal problems, either. He had been released from prison temporarily while the court decided an issue involving his medical treatment in jail. He had argued that he wasn’t getting proper medical attention as a prisoner. This led us to medical reports: he was HIV positive. There were test results with numbers that David seemed to appreciate: “Not great,” he said. “Pretty bad, actually.” Brian was sick, though you couldn’t see
it. He was going to die. And then finally we came on a letter addressed to the judge, asking for leniency. And it was from another judge, a judge in North Carolina, and he used a different name for Brian, Morris, Morris Guller, and he called him My brother. And he asked for mercy.
Brian had a family, a real one.
Before my father was sentenced, I had written a letter exactly like that, asking for mercy. I’d fantasized about writing something angry, telling how he had been persecuted for years by over-zealous prosecutors, our family destroyed by an investigation that was more like a one-sided war of attrition, a carpet bombing. But I knew that the judge wouldn’t want to hear any of that, so I wrote instead about what a good parent my father was and how much I loved him and would miss him if he had to go to prison. I wrote it in a sort of blank state, watching my hand move, as if I weren’t a whole person but just a collection of limbs. I did not understand mercy then. I was ashamed to ask for it, to need it. I was angered by my own desire to give it. To my father. To myself. And now to Brian.
We put the papers back in the box and moved on to the next room. In a couple of days, we would have to pack up the station wagon and drive back to our parents’ apartment in order to resume our lives, the ones we had left behind. But right now, we were burglars in an empty house, afraid to stay too long but reluctant to leave, looking for something good to steal.